As our technology start-up, Handshake Media, Incorporated, approaches the anniversary of its fourth year in business, I am reflecting upon what I might do differently if I were starting the company today. About corporate intellectual property (IP), here are the three pieces of start-up advice I would give myself:
1) Pick names for your company and products that aren't common words.
In 1996, "Internet Technologies" seemed like a cutting-edge name for a line of World Wide Web products and services. I worked that year for a company with a similar name now out of business. I can't imagine the difficulties in trying to trademark the name today.
I look up URLs, trademarks and do Google searches on every company or product name before I even think of launching or releasing it, but not everyone does. A whole lot of people have the same great ideas for business products, services, and company names, too. If a company doesn't declare and protect its naming and trademark rights, it risks losing them. The fellowship of entrepreneurship makes start-up-to-start-up cease and desist actions demoralizing and miserable for all parties involved, and the requisite legal fees are miserably hard on both start-ups' budgets.
2) If the .com URL isn't available for the name you have in mind for your company or product, change the name of your company or product.
Don't add "inc" to the end, i.e. companynameinc.com, or add a hyphen because someone already has the unhyphenated version. That generates confusion in the marketplace and has both legal and business model ramifications. You could be the receiver, not instigator, of a cease and desist action. And you will build a valuable company or innovative product and make its name brand URL very valuable to the person who owns it, which isn't you. Competitors out-compete you. Trolls happen.
3) Trademark everything from day one.
Consult an IP attorney about trademarking your company name, tagline, products' names, everything that could be considered intellectual property and a corporate asset. Although I showed more initiative than most, I still was "pennywise and pound [dollar] foolish" by not spending small amounts on trademarks early and ending up paying larger sums to fix problems or rebrand later. Entrepreneurs want to pivot because of momentum, not mistakes. If someone has already used what you want to use, see #1 and #2.
These lessons were hard to learn, but not as hard as they could have been. I followed advice I was given from day one: Do not DIY IP. Hire an IP attorney.
In 4 years, I have worked with 3 IP attorneys, the most recent for the past 2 years. Having done 2 years of work with me, my IP attorney knows my business, my business model, and our industry. Doing business with her costs fractions of hours, not hours, because I don't have to provide a context. Most importantly, she has the education, knowledge and experience of an IP expert. I don't.
Paying for hours of expertise frees up my hours for what I really want to do – grow my start-up exponentially for next year's anniversary celebration.
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Sponsored by LeClairRyan, a law firm with deep entrepreneurial roots, having originally been founded as a venture capital boutique. With more than 350 attorneys and offices from Virginia to New York to California, the firm provides business counsel and client representation in matters of corporate law and high-stakes litigation. Its mission is to achieve excellence for its clients by providing integrated, responsive and timely services.
For information about LeClairRyan's Intellectual Property Practice, please contact Rebecca Conner.