One of the first questions start up entrepreneurs usually ask sounds something like this: “Is it worth the effort and expense to get a patent on this business idea?” In countless conversations with clients in my years as a patent attorney, I could usually articulate multiple reasons why the person seeking to to start a new business venture unequivocally needed to file a patent application as soon as possible. Moreover, I could recite a litany of ills that could follow from failing to follow my advice. Following this conversation, I could typically expect a fat check from the client, whereupon I would dutifully draft strong patent on the subject invention. It was a nice living.
These days, I work as a startup technology company CEO and look at patents much differently than I did in the past: as a consumer of patent services myself, I now examine patenting issues from the vantage point of an entrepreneur, not as a lawyer whose business model centers on patents. My viewpoint has been further honed in the last year as I have become a practitioner of the Lean Startup Methodology, a startup business framework that, in short, states that if an entrepreneur cannot validate her business model with actual, paying customers, she has no business being in business. In this new operational paradigm, when a company is in the startup phase, all efforts not spent on determining whether a profitable revenue model exists with customers should be considered wasteful. It then necessarily follows that obtaining a patent on a product or service that no one will buy is by definition waste in the world of the Lean Startup.
Lean Startup Methodology is just now growing in adoption with entrepreneurs like myself. Few patent attorneys likely participate actively in the thought processes circulating in the startup world–why should they–their business is patents, not building a startup business. It is therefore doubtful that patent advice relevant to Lean Startup has started to permeate the legal advice world. Moreover, advice that entrepreneurs not patent as frequently, which will inherently result when an entrepreneur follows the Lean Startup Model, will necessarily reduce the income streams for patent professionals. I expect that unless patent lawyers quickly generate a new business model that allows them to generate substantial income from clients by recommending NOT patenting, patent lawyers will be slow in incorporating the Lean Startup Model into their advice to entrepreneurs.
In later posts, I will endeavor to provide a reality check to those who wish to get beyond opinions based on anecdotes and self-interested experts regarding the likely return on investment that entrepreneurs can expect from filing for patent protection for their business or product idea. For those entrepreneurs also following the Lean Startup Methodology in their business, these posts will hopefully provide your team with a framework to determine whether patent filing will comprise wasteful effort and expense that can detract from the ability to achieve success.
The initial takeaway for Lean Startup Method entrepreneurs should be that when a patent professional is giving you patent advice, you should apply the Lean framework to his business model. As long you continue to accept his advice and pay him to obtain a patent on your business idea, you are validating his business model. As I said, it’s a great business. It’s up to us Lean Startup entrepreneurs to force them to develop a new model that serves us better as we embrace this new business paradigm.