Our legal action against Mark Mazza, Patrick Williams, and PromoCodeWatch

Former colleagues and partners have been asking about Mark Mazza, Patrick Williams, and PromoCodeWatch.com and our lawsuit against them. The following provides a timeline of events and facts for the benefit of those who know us and may have questions about our ongoing litigation.

Why this article?

We've decided to go public about our legal action against Mark Mazza, Patrick Williams, and PromoCodeWatch, LLC. As our litigation has progressed, they have recently threatened to countersue us for defamation.

So, I'm writing this article to provide a timeline of events and the facts about Mark and Patrick's activities which we view as illegal, fraudulent, and morally corrupt. It is our preference to be as open and transparent about this matter as possible.

We will continue to pursue our claims in court until their legal conclusion, and we look forward to defending ourselves against any allegations that Mark, Patrick, or PromoCodeWatch may make.

We're also writing this as a forewarning to prospective partners, employees, or employers of Mark Mazza or Patrick Williams. We believe these individuals defrauded us, their former employer, by stealing trade secrets and proprietary and confidential company information and materials and then used this information to compete unfairly against us in the marketplace.

If you are a current or former employee of ZipfWorks, we are using this document to shed light on the pending legal action which is a matter of public record. Please note that, as a matter of company policy, we respect the privacy of our employees. The conversations and information we've documented here were procured from these individual's computers and company accounts only as a result of this ongoing litigation.

Our lawsuit against Mark Mazza, Patrick Williams, and PromoCodeWatch LLC

In February 2017, we filed a formal complaint against PromoCodeWatch LLC and its founders. You can view a copy of the full complaint here.

Here's why we're suing them.

Mark Paul Mazza and Patrick Melvin Williams are former employees of ZipfWorks. Mark worked for us for two and a half years until he was terminated on October 9, 2015. On October 10, 2015, Mark registered the domain promocodewatch.com and then Mark and Patrick co-founded PromoCodeWatch, LLC.

  • Mark and Patrick launched promocodewatch.com in November 2016, a shell clone of our flagship coupon site, about one month after Mark was terminated
  • Rather than invest in building a team to populate promocodewatch.com with hand-verified coupons codes - as is standard practice in the industry - Mark and Patrick skipped such investment by copying and pasting tens of thousands of fake and expired coupon codes into their database. They then proceeded to utilize deceptive website schemes to make these fake coupons appear to be current and valid to their site visitors, encouraging them to click, thereby increasing PromoCodeWatch's revenues and improving their search engine rankings.
  • With their shell website populated with fake content, Mark and Patrick proceeded to invest approximately $100,000 in an improper marketing scheme called "paid links." In this scheme, PromoCodeWatch acquired backlinks by paying sponsorship fees in exchange for "dofollow" backlinks which boost their search engine rankings. Google expressly forbids the abuse of such paid arrangements for links, because this enables sites with poor content to rank above sites with useful content, creating an inferior web search experience. While other mainstream sites occasionally acquire backlinks by sponsoring other sites, in general these links represent a small minority of a site's total backlink composition. By our estimates, 84% of PromoCodeWatch's backlink portfolio is comprised of paid sponsorship links.
  • Further, Mark and Patrick exploited their documented knowledge of a particular, confidential vulnerability of our website in 2014. Our website was vulnerable to an attack by a third party website which closely copied our site's structure, mimicked our content (even with fake content), and then cloned a large percentage of our backlink portfolio. If executed in a specific way, this scheme could cause Google to redirect traffic away from our site to the third party site. Mark and Patrick utilized their knowledge of this scheme and used it to siphon traffic away from our website to their shell version.

Prior to working for ZipfWorks, Mark and Patrick had no prior experience in affiliate marketing, search engine marketing, or online coupons. Neither had started a successful product, service or business venture.

Yet, in this extremely competitive industry, these two individuals with no notable expertise or qualifications were somehow able to grow a new website from inception to almost one million monthly visits and significant revenues in the unrealistically short span of about one year. How?

In our view, Mark and Patrick utilized proprietary and confidential information and trade secrets learned about our business and marketing techniques when they worked for us, and then unethically used our proprietary and confidential data to compete unfairly against us in the marketplace.

As a result, Mark and Patrick have been unjustly enriched, and we've lost significant revenues which have been redirected to their fraudulent business, harming consumers along the way. Our revenue losses have resulted in the layoff of our employees - people's lives have been directly impacted by Mark and Patrick's unethical and fraudulent actions.

One example of non-public information used by Mark and Patrick included the "Competitive Search Position Replacement" effect, a highly troubling vulnerability of which Mark had detailed knowledge from his time working for us. In this effect, if a competing website copied certain specific, key backlinks under certain conditions, the Google search engine appeared to substitute the copycat website in lieu of our website in certain important search positions. This resulted in the competing site diverting a significant amount of traffic from our site to theirs by "replacing" us on Google's search results pages for certain specific, highly trafficked search phrases.

In 2014, we witnessed the ‚ÄúCompetitive Search Position Replacement‚ÄĚ take effect on our website. As this had a large impact on our revenues, we monitored the situation very closely, and Mark was the member on my staff who conducted our internal analysis of this effect. Mark studied its causes, its timing, and its revenue impact, and had detailed knowledge of this effect, including the particular vulnerabilities of our website and how the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect could cause a competing website to divert significant traffic from our website to theirs. Mark and I corresponded frequently about this subject in person and via Slack, our internal messaging system.

In 2015, we began a major project to change the composition of our backlink portfolio, partly to insulate ourselves from the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect. This involved removing backlinks, and using a special tool provided by Google to disavow specific backlinks in our portfolio. We also shifted to a marketing strategy purely focused on organic community development, influencer marketing and content marketing.

However, during this transition, which we expected to last from 2015 to early 2016, we knew that our site would temporarily lose traffic, and we would in fact face heightened vulnerability to the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect. In particular, if a competing website were to acquire the same links we had just removed and disavowed, it was likely that this site would be able to divert significant traffic from our website to theirs.

Mark Mazza was aware our shift in marketing strategy, and we believe he understood that this placed us at heightened risk for the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect, and that this risk peaked at around the time he was terminated.

We terminated Mark's employment on October 9, 2015. We believe that upon his termination, Mark set out to utilize everything he had learned at ZipfWorks, including trade secrets and confidential information, to compete against us. We further believe he relied on fraudulent and unethical business practices to gain further leverage against us and our other industry peers.

On October 10, 2015, one day after he was let go, Mark registered the domain promocodewatch.com. A few weeks later, he and Patrick launched a website that closely cloned our coupon website.

We also believe that Mark utilized confidential information contained in his corporate email account, private Google spreadsheets, and confidential Trello boards to which he had privileged access, as well as certain private link brokers with whom we had direct and confidential relationships, to acquire backlinks in an unrealistically short timeframe for PromoCodeWatch.

Mark and Patrick also behaved in ways to indicate that they shared a mutual openness to running a fraudulent business that would not respect the bounds of traditional business ethics. We discovered conversations between Mark and Patrick on our corporate messaging system in which they discussed the possibility of conspiring to create various unethical business ventures.

Here is one such conversation which occurred on August 5, 2015, three months before Mark and Patrick launched promocodewatch.com:

And another on August 27, 2015, two months before launching promocodewatch.com:

From its launch, PromoCodeWatch acquired backlinks at an unusually rapid pace. Conspicuously, they aggressively acquired backlinks with a pronounced overlap with our backlink portfolio. Below is a timeline of the first backlinks Mark and Patrick acquired for PromoCodeWatch in the first few months from their launch in November 2015 (per data from Majestic.com and Ahrefs.com):

Of the first 50 backlinks they acquired, 35 overlapped with our backlink portfolio, a remarkable 70% overlap. It is hard to imagine that their website's first backlinks would overlap with ours at a rate of 70% by pure chance. We believe this timeline clearly illustrates Mark's and Patrick's intent to clone our backlink portfolio in pursuit of the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect, to their benefit and at our expense.

We also believe that many of their backlinks were sourced by private brokers they learned of while working for us. These brokers could not be found on the internet, these were private contacts proprietary to our company. We further believe they used other non-public contacts from our protected, internal documents to acquire certain backlinks.

Mark and Patrick accelerated their efforts to acquire backlinks through 2015 and 2016, acquiring 792 backlinks through the end of 2016. The net effect has been dramatic for us - PromoCodeWatch has replaced our position on Google for a significant number of crucial search phrases. We estimate that, between 2015 to now, we lost between 30% to 40% of our traffic as a result.

Additionally, Mark and Patrick acquired these 792 backlinks for a total investment of, in our estimation, over $100,000 in their first year of operation. PromoCodeWatch has no record of venture funding, and we believe that Mark and Patrick funded this on their own, perhaps with help from family and friends.

For a startup without venture funding to invest $100,000 solely in backlinks is highly unusual, partially because it would leave little funding for other aspects of creating a product, developing content, and running a legitimate business. In particular, by far the most expensive and resource-intensive part of running an online coupon site is content development - namely keeping coupons verified and up-to-date for tens of thousands of stores. For example, PromoCodeWatch promotes pages for roughly 48,000 stores:

To check those 48,000 stores to ensure their coupons were up-to-date would require significant resources and manpower. For example, mainstream coupon sites such as RetailMeNot, Offers.com, and Coupons.com have dozens to hundreds of employees dedicated to keeping coupons current. In our case we use crowdsourcing and an active community of 50,000 user members to test, verify, and edit thousands of coupons each day.

In 2016, we saw evidence that rather than posting valid coupons, PromoCodeWatch was mass-posting fake coupons, so we conducted an in-depth study with screenshots to analyze their website during December 2016 through February 2017. We found that, of the 126 coupon codes we tested on their site across 31 stores, only 7% provided a valid discount.

Furthermore, we discovered that PromoCodeWatch engaged in a programmatic scheme to deceive users on their very own website. Each day, PromoCodeWatch executed a site-wide programmatic script which mass-updated expiration dates across almost all of their site's coupons in one fell swoop. This script modified the expiration dates of their coupons site-wide, moving them back by a few days at a time. This script ran even on expired, invalid, and outright fake coupons on their site.

This script had the effect of making all of their coupons (even fake or long-expired ones) appear to be current and valid, just expiring soon on a specific day in the very near future. While every coupon site will have instances of expired coupons, these tend to be isolated cases rather than widespread patterns. Further, no ethical site operator would proactively update their expired coupons to make them appear to be active.

We can only imagine that PromoCodeWatch's tactics caused thousands of visitors to click on these coupons and go through the trouble of trying to redeem them, only to find, after wasted time and effort, that such coupon code was already expired or otherwise invalid.

For Mark and Patrick, however, this was probably a very cost-effective way to generate revenues from thousands of coupon pages which they did not bother to update.

PromoCodeWatch's willingness to make money by displaying expired coupons should perhaps not be all too surprising in light of things Mark has said on this topic in the past:

In a further scheme to deceive their own site visitors, PromoCodeWatch also displayed a green "verified" checkmark label on the coupons displayed on their site. This is a recognized symbol in the industry to used to indicate trust, that the website operator had tested the coupon and is claiming that the coupon works. PromoCodeWatch prominently displayed this green checkmark, even for coupons that were invalid, fake, or expired for over one year.

PromoCodeWatch even went so far as to display "verified" coupon codes for stores that do not offer coupon codes at all as a matter of brand policy, such as 23andMe:

You can read the the full study here.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that Mark and Patrick utilized two unethical business practices to run their own website. First, they skipped the investment in the required infrastructure, technology, and manpower to operate a valid coupon website with real content in the form of real, verified coupons. Second, they went one step further and took proactive measures to actively deceive their own site visitors into thinking their fake content was real.

To summarize, as we allege in our complaint, we believe that Mark Mazza, Patrick Williams, and PromoCodeWatch engaged in the following fraudulent conduct:

  • Mark Mazza and Patrick Williams met each other while working for us. Neither had prior industry experience in the affiliate marketing or online coupons areas.
  • From internal chat records, we have reason to believe that they had an openness to running an online venture that did not respect the bounds of good business ethics
  • We know that Mark had detailed inside knowledge of the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect
  • We believe that Mark and Patrick utilized their knowledge of the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect and used it to unfairly divert traffic from our website to theirs.
  • We believe that Mark and Patrick used confidential contacts and private brokers they learned about as our employees in order to acquire backlinks at a more rapid rate than would otherwise have been possible
  • PromoCodeWatch cloned our site's structure, mirrored our content and cloned our backlinks, acquiring an initial backlink portfolio with 70% overlap with ours, making it clear to us that Mark and Patrick intended to use the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect against us and to their benefit
  • Without this confidential information, we believe it would have been highly unlikely for Mark and Patrick to have been able to launch a new venture in a competitive industry and reach one million monthly visitors and profitability within their first year of operation
  • Mark and Patrick likely invested over $100,000 in backlinks in their first year of operation, and skipped the necessary investment in infrastructure and manpower to provide real, working coupons on their website
  • They went further and took active measures to deceive their site visitors into thinking their fake or expired coupons were real
  • Mark and Patrick have likely earned significant profits as a result of these fraudulent activities
  • Our business has been harmed as we have lost significant revenues, and have had to layoff staff as a result.

PromoCodeWatch, in our view, is an illegitimate business which engages in fraud and intentionally harms consumers for its own unjust enrichment, and should be shut down. We believe Mark Mazza and Patrick Williams used secret, non-public information about our business, operations, and marketing to unfairly compete with us in the marketplace and steal revenues from us. PromoCodeWatch's unethical and illicit practices have resulted in lost revenues for us, and has directly impacted the lives of employees who were laid off as a direct result of their actions. We are seeking damages in the form of lost revenues since 2015 and the amounts that PromoCodeWatch and its founders saved by misappropriating our trade secrets and confidential and proprietary information.

More details on Mark Mazza

Mark Paul Mazza started to work for us on February 7, 2013, as a junior data entry assistant. He was paid hourly and assisted with basic administrative tasks.

Mark was a hard worker and was eager to learn. Mark has an affable, disarming demeanor - he likes to talk sports and gossip about the office - and he's good about fostering relationships with people around him. I liked Mark personally, and over time I entrusted him with a lot of responsibility. He eventually learned enough to manage our affiliate advertising accounts, helped manage our overseas outsourcing team, and assisted with a range of business operations tasks.

Mark came in with little relevant experience (he was a data entry clerk at SodaStream and did sales cold calling while at Organic Online). Mark lacked copywriting skills, which I viewed as essential in marketing and management, and as I invest in all my employees' career development, I purchased for him a copy of William Strunk's The Elements of Style to help him improve his writing.

Over two and a half years working for me, Mark grew under my mentorship from an entry-level hourly employee to a capable junior manager. Because I liked him and was generally happy with the efforts he displayed on the job, I paid him well, he earned six figures and earned significant equity grants under me. I had Mark talk to our advertisers, I sent him to affiliate marketing conferences, I even entrusted Mark with a company credit card.

Mark and I did weekly one-on-one meetings, during which I gave him extensive mentorship in running an online business, including building a website, the basics of search engine optimization, affiliate advertising, and how to recruit and run an outsourcing team.

I invested a lot of time and energy into Mark's development, Mark really did come to ZipfWorks with no discernible skills in online business, and his career in affiliate marketing got its foothold under my direct mentorship over two and a half years.

During his tenure with us, however, I started to notice some signs of trouble with Mark. Through conversations with members of my team, and through documentation brought to my attention, I came to learn that Mark sometimes misused his position of trust with me.

I learned of incidents when Mark shared privileged information (financial information, or sensitive HR and personnel matters) about the business with other employees who were not authorized to hear such information.

In two instances, internal messages were brought to our attention in which Mark solicited software engineers on our team to work on side projects with him, going so far as to hint that he might launch a competing product in the affiliate marketing space (in one incident he propositioned an engineer to join him to build a "shady affiliate" site - note: we believe the engineer meant "loyal" instead of "royal").

Mark also misused his company credit card as well as his access to our corporate PayPal account, charging late night weekend car rides on his AMEX, and purchasing personal meals for himself without authorization. The very day Mark received this corporate AMEX, he immediately discussed using it to fund his online poker account via Bitcoin with a fellow employee:

Mark and Patrick would also discuss the topic of abusing Mark's company credit card. While the following instance does not in itself prove any specific wrongdoing, it serves to illustrate Mark and Patrick's general character and attitude towards the company:

We observed a range of additional behavioral issues, including playing online poker while at work (and encouraging other employees to join him in doing so) - this chat occurred on a workday in the office around 1pm:

We have documentation to illustrate these and other problems with Mark's conduct while employed with us.

In a tough but resolute decision, I finally decided to let Mark go as a part of a wider layoff in October 2016. He worked for us for two and a half years.

Little did I know that Mark would immediately turn around and take everything that he learned from me to try to damage our business and harm our employees (who were also his fellow co-workers), to unjustly enrich himself and Patrick.

More details on Patrick Williams

We hired Patrick Melvin Williams on March 30, 2015, as our UI/UX Designer. Patrick brought with him experience as a designer at ProductionBeast, Booz & Co, Serge Media, and Mahalo.com. Patrick, having graduated from Full Sail University, didn't come with a traditional educational background in design, but made up for it with an innate talent for marketing and an eye for design. Patrick had a strong ability to incorporate business strategy into his designs to create complete, sensible designs that meet business goals.

As current and former employees will attest to, Patrick struggled a bit with interpersonal relationships in the office. He often became visibly upset when questioned or challenged by engineers or other designers on our team. I spent significant time counseling him privately, some meetings going for two hours or more, trying to help him interface with team members on a more proactive, professional level, without taking things personally. As I do with all my employees, I invested in Patrick's development in his short tenure with us.

One unusual thing about Patrick, though, is a conspicuous lack of digital footprint. He has almost no presence on social media, not even on LinkedIn, which is very unusual for someone in the online industry. Even now, as a co-founder of PromoCodeWatch, Patrick cannot be found on LinkedIn:

In 2017, it is highly unusual that a co-founder of a technology company would not list themselves on LinkedIn. Patrick does not even appear as an employee on PromoCodeWatch's LinkedIn company profile. Back when I interviewed Patrick, I also found it odd that he left out large segments of his life and career from his resume in which he omitted his school background and his experience at Mahalo.

Had he not met Patrick while working for us, Mark would have faced significant difficulty in convincing a capable engineer to build his fraudulent website for him. We believe that Patrick possessed a perfect blend of technical skill with an unscrupulous habit of hiding behind an anonymous identity to make for Mark's perfect partner-in-crime. Together, they joined forces to engage in fraud which harmed our company and consumers at large.

Details of the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect

As mentioned above, while working for us, Mark worked on a range confidential sensitive business matters. This meant he assisted in confidential areas involving details of revenues and our search engine optimization strategies.

This also meant that Mark was intimately aware of the "Competitive Search Position Replacement" effect that only a few people within my company knew about.

In 2014, we witnessed a new competitor launch a copycat coupon website very similar to ours. This site proceeded to copy a significant portion of our backlinks. What proceeded to happen over the subsequent months was surprising and alarming. The new website managed to "replace" us in Google's search listings for a large portion of our high-traffic keywords. Apparently, there was unknown loophole in Google's algorithm, which enabled a competing website to copy specific, key backlinks under certain conditions, and the Google search engine would substitute the copycat website in lieu of our website in certain important search positions.

Mark was our key team member in analyzing this effect. Mark tracked in detail over time, which links this competitor was copying, and tracked which keywords they were replacing us for on Google.

In almost daily chat sessions, Mark and I discussed the details of the Competitive Search Position Replacement effect, and how a competitor had, in Mark's words, "snake bitten" us by copying our important links (as measured by Majestic.com or Ahrefs.com):

Mark would often express frustration with how this competitor had stolen our critical keyword rankings ("huge keywords") by copying our backlinks:

Mark and I frequently discussed the scope and extent of our keyword rankings (BPC referred to our site) for which we were replaced by this competitor, and the amount of traffic that we lost as a result:

We can show through documented proof that Mark was keenly aware of this specific competitor, and how they replaced our rankings for thousands of important keywords, and how copying our backlinks was the method by which they achieved this effect.

Mark knew this competitor had "snake bitten" us by copying a large number of our backlinks and thereby stealing our rankings.

Mark then turned around and implemented the exact same technique against us after he was terminated. He even used our private link brokers, and confidential and proprietary information stored on private documents to acquire his links for PromoCodeWatch.

Mark and Patrick went further and amplified this effect by populating promocodewatch.com with thousands of fake coupons designed to look real. This most likely had an effect of artificially boosting their search rankings and their revenues, at the expense of the time and frustration of their own site's visitors.

As a result of Mark's unethical actions, PromoCodeWatch replaced our site for a large portion of our most essential keywords which supported our business. We've had to lay-off staff as a result of these losses.

Where we're headed

For us, it's rather simple. A coupon website or app exists for one reason: to provide accurate, working coupons for shoppers, and to try to do it better than the competition. A site that posts fake coupons, masks them as real ones, and then invests in unethical marketing schemes to rank prominently in search engines, is a simple fraud, nothing more.

As for us, we're continuing to keep our heads down, focusing on providing our industry's best content. We've already largely succeeded in this regard. By building a large community of deal enthusiasts, and by creating a compelling incentive program based on gamification, we have developed, based on studies we've conducted, the industry's most complete and most accurate database of coupon codes.

We continue to execute our strategy of growing our business through community development, influencer partnerships, content marketing, and PR.

Will continue to pursue our legal claims in court against Mark Mazza, Patrick Williams, and PromoCodeWatch to stop them from competing unfairly in the marketplace while defrauding our company and their users. We believe their website was created through unjust means, and is harmful to consumers, and should be shut down. We will also seek to recover lost revenues lost to PromoCodeWatch going back to 2015 as well as damages for Mark and Patrick's unjust enrichment from their use of our trade secrets and proprietary information.

If you have any questions about this ongoing litigation, or any of the information provided in this article, feel free to contact us at zipfworks.com.