Situation: A company is facing the expiration of the principal patent for its main product. There are subsidiary patents which still have life. Currently, there are no competing products, but several companies understand the technology. How do you plan for patent expiration?
Advice from the CEOs:
Think of this as a two-step process:
Step 1 – Step back and look at what the company has:
Patents – including the claims that have been awarded on all company patents.
Facilities – capable of manufacturing current products, but also additional products, perhaps with a minimum of additional equipment.
People – competent staff running manufacturing operations, and tight office operations.
Step 2 – Loot at where the company could go and evaluate the markets where the existing technology is applicable:
Work with outside, imaginative people who can take a fresh look at the options.
Looks carefully at the claims in all the company’s patents.
What do they cover?
Is there an opportunity to extend current claims through process patents?
Caveat: a company can file for a process patent on anything that has been for sale on the market for less than a year. However, if they have been selling a product covered by this application for more than a year, they cannot.
Look at other markets – companies that could license the company’s technology, or with whom the company could partner to provide new consumer-oriented products:
Is there inexpensive, affordable equipment that would enable the company to produce additional products in the current location?
Think outside the box: what business is the company in? Think more broadly than the current market about where high value opportunities exist. These can be low to medium volume, high price/margin or high-volume lower price/margin.
Patents are not the only protection – trade secrets also work. 3M’s primary IP strategy, particularly on their adhesives, etc. is through trade secret – both for low and high-volume products.
“Product” patent extensions have limited utility. They are easy to design around. “Process” patents have more utility. These can be licensed at low cost per application in high volume applications and provide a nice royalty reserve stream.
A founding CEO wants to cut back to 1-2 days per week with someone else overseeing
day-to-day operations. Her timeline to accomplish this is 3 years. Currently
she splits her time between engineering and sales support, managing operations,
overseeing the CFO and managing the company. How do you accomplish this
transition? What is your 3-year plan?
from the CEOs:
for and hire a General Manager/engineer who can understand the company’s applications
and develop unique solutions.
for and hire an understudy for the sales person. This could be someone in their
40s who is experienced, and who can act both as the sales person’s back-up and develop
additional accounts to diversify the business.
the company continues to grow it will take more time and effort to manage all
the activities. Plan the company’s organization chart and infrastructure to
account for this.
careful not create an infrastructure during good times that is unsustainable
during down times.
the new GM gains familiarity with the company, this individual will and should start
to take control. This automatically means that the founding CEO will have to
agree to release some of her control. Prepare for this.
several alternatives for the GM:
President – $400K.
with engineering talent – perhaps a consulting or engineering sales background.
Hire at $150-200K and develop into the President.
the 3-year lead time this individual could be a Technical Lead or Project
Engineer. The objective will be to develop a very talented person into the GM
or President. This alternative opens a larger pool of talent, at lower initial
are these people found?
high-quality engineer that another CEO won’t be hiring over the coming months. Talk
to friends and industry contacts.
Situation: A company has built a very successful specialty manufacturing business in the US. Their manufacturing operations are labor intensive, with manufacturing practices optimized using motion studies and sharing best practices developed on the production floor. The CEO is evaluating whether it makes more sense to expand production in the US or to explore international options. Do you produce domestically or internationally?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are trade-offs between domestic and international production. Quality labor is available internationally at lower costs than in the US. However, risks include potential loss of quality control and higher levels of waste.
While investigating international production options, focus first on less critical operations where savings from lower labor costs outweigh the potential cost of wasted material.
Do not try to move highly controlled operations. These will include critical operations which require both an elevated level of operator skill and close supervision.
Before evaluating international options, break down the steps of manufacturing or processing to identify specific subcomponents or subprocesses that could be outsourced at reasonable risk.
For example, look at high volume parts where quality and variation in tolerances is less critical. These will be the best candidates for production in a lower cost, potentially lower quality environment.
How critical are trade secrets or patented IP to production? In the US and Europe there are strong protections for IP. However, these protections are not as strong in all countries. If production is outsourced to countries with poor IP protection, this may enable IP theft and create future low-cost competition.
Situation: A company was created from IP originally developed by the founder at a large corporation that was not interested in commercializing it. The new company has now become successful and visible, with the large corporation as an important partner. The CEO wants to make sure that she has all bases covered to secure the future of the new company. How do you manage a key partner relationship?
Advice from the CEOs:
There must be clear agreement between the company and partner on ownership of the original IP – a legal document signed by both parties. You can bet that should a conflict arise, the lawyers representing the larger company will argue that their client owns the IP. Once this is secured, focus on developing and licensing software that you clearly own.
Develop contingency plans should the key partner decide to exit the business on which your relationship is based. Identify what other companies could replace lost revenue. Start to build these relationships.
If the partner helps to fund current development, take the money that you save and develop your own IP, independent of the partner relationship. As an alternative, at least develop critical components of the software as your own IP, without using the partner’s funding.
This will free you to develop other customer segments to broaden your business base.
What concerns does the partner have? Strategically, large corporations can be uncomfortable if they feel dependent upon a much smaller company. There are two things that you do:
Makes a concerted effort to assure that you are essential to the large corporation’s overall business.
Make change as painful as possible.
How would you get paid if the large partner exited the relationship?
Negotiate a contract with a 2-year window to any change that partner wants to make. This will provide you with the room to develop new clientele should the partner exit.
Have contingency plans to rebuild capabilities that might be lost and sell it to other clients.
Customize your software by client. In the process, you will develop new methods to keep your edge over competitors.
Keep critical parts of your processes “manual” so that they are essentially trade secrets and not easily replicable if the partner were to try to take over the IP.
Situation: A company has an opportunity to use equipment supplied by a partner to create a demonstration project that will highlight their capabilities. They want to create the best buzz possible through this effort. One idea is to work with local service agencies to create a demonstration that will be highly appealing to news outlets. How do you create the best buzz?
Advice from the CEOs:
In addition to working with local agencies in your target localities to create publicity and awareness, work with the local newspaper reporters who write about the areas served by these agencies. City reporters are always looking for fresh stories, and will help you to generate instant news that may be picked up by other local and possibly national media. This form of building awareness virally is much more effective than traditional advertising campaigns.
Use industry trade shows of potential partners as demo venues by collaborating with the trade show organizers for a live demonstration that benefits the organizers. Let technical trade publications know about your demos. Stories that catch the attention of technical publications can also get the attention of national media and give you visibility far beyond the trade shows.
Use YouTube to highlight use and the impact of your service. Assure that your YouTube videos are interesting and attention gathering. This will help generate viral awareness.
Look at how Google helped to make Mountain View, CA a wireless city. They worked with the city and created great excitement both locally and nationally.
Consider using actors to stage demonstrations, followed by actual demonstrations.