Hard Is The New Patent

This post was published originally on Medium

“The only protection you have from me copying you, is doing something really really hard”
– CEO of Major Technology Company

Last week, a bill containing key pieces of needed patent reform was killed in the Senate. The legislation was aimed at reducing patent trolls by preventing them from bringing baseless lawsuits to extract concessions from companies without the financial strength to take the issue to court. There is another side to the patent reform debate that gets talked about less, it’s the side where small companies aren’t really even protected in many cases by patents. We all file them, we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, but it feels like we’re checking the box, not really adding real protection.

Last year when we were raising money for SOLS a CEO of a large publicly traded technology company asked us how we would protect our technology from competitors. The first thing out of our mouth was “oh, we filed patents” — without hesitation he chuckled and told us that the only protection we had from him not taking our idea was to do something really difficult. That statement stuck with me for the last year and haven’t asked a company how they plan on protecting their IP since — either what they are doing is hard or it’s not.

Brad Bernthal from the University of Colorado once told me that a patent is only as strong as the willingness to enforce it. It seems to me that our patent system has figured out a way to both screw the little guy by enabling fraudulent patent trolls and at the same time taken away protection from the innovators that need it most — small cash strapped companies. In the current environment it has become painfully obvious that the only protection is the difficulty with which someone could copy what you’ve created whether that be a technology, community or process.

Hard Is The New Patent

Why Entrepreneurs Love Endurance Sports

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If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.
– Christopher McDougall (Born To Run)

As I prepared for my first marathon last year, people kept asking me why I was running the race. What compelled me to spend all my free time running (and at the time fundraising for CCFA). While there were personal reasons for this specific race, what was apparent is that a ton of my fellow entrepreneurs had done or were preparing to do some endurance activity themselves. From mountaineering to marathons to triathlons – it was clear that the entrepreneurially inclined also have a higher than normal participation rate in endurance sports.

What is it about pushing yourself to physical limits that appeals to us? Some say it’s the same drive and motivation to succeed that lead them to entrepreneurship in the first place. Honestly that’s just not it. Certainly the skills and character needed for professional success helps someone complete their chosen activity – but it’s not the “why”. After 6 months of reflection and a few more races, it’s become apparent that the thing I seek is myself. The voice in my head that becomes even more introspective, even more truthful. It’s a place to reconcile the decisions of my past and their results and think through the decisions I currently face in a physical and emotional place that has been stripped bare of its armor.

The startup environment is so emotionally and physically demanding that we develop protection, both from the outside world and from ourselves. There is something about bumping up against your physical limits that breaks down even the strongest armor.

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Finding “How Can We Make This Work” People

You come to me with ideas
You say they’re just pieces, so I’m puzzled
– Eminem (Dr Dre – I Need a Doctor)

People usually respond in one of 2 ways to hearing about a new idea. Either they say “how can this work” or they say “this can’t work because of X”. One reaction opens a dialog and the other shuts it down. Some people don’t understand that the idea itself doesn’t matter, it’s just a jumping off point for a conversation. When the conversation is shut down and you end up having to defend the basic validity of having an idea – it really kills the mood.

It’s just an idea for god’s sakes!

Ideas aren’t inherently bad or good, they are jumping off points for thinking. Who can say which of a barrage of ideas was the one that led to a radical solution to a tough problem? Nobody. It’s just too fluid to judge. The conversation around the idea is what is important and is vital to expanding how we think through problems and the interact with the world around us.

This simple reaction has become a simple test when meeting and hiring new people and it has proved remarkably adapt at predicting how well we’ll get along.

Finding “How Can We Make This Work” People

Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.
–Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

Last week I read a couple posts about hiring MBAs into startups by Ed Zimmerman and Phin Barnes. They took a thoughtful look at hiring and funding MBAs, with both largely ending up on the “it ultimately depends – but I’m usually extra cautious about it” answer. My view is a little more nuanced view, in that I think that most MBAs should ignore the startup hype and go after the big roles at corporates that they dream about. Much like a Rabbi telling the wannabe convert to get stuffed 3 times before welcoming  them into the fold, founders should push the limits of potential MBA candidates.

If they don’t do the startup thing, it’s totally ok! Other people do not need to define success, or their life, the way that a startup founder does. It makes me extremely upset when I see startups poopooing other people’s career goals as not valiant. It is perfectly acceptable, and more logical, to make a conscious effort to de-risk career choices. Hell, in the depths of the dark days there isn’t a single startup founder who makes it past the “just messing around stage” that doesn’t rethink their own huge risk taking. Over the past year I’ve had more than my share of dark days, many of which had me thinking how to seriously de-risk.

When an MBA decides to take on the extra risk, they can be a huge asset. Many MBAs have an element of unrestrained ambition that makes them a force when deployed in the right way. They will give up all other aspects of their life for professional success, throw personal relationships out the door and maybe even sacrifice their own health. They also usually have the intelligence and attitude to be a key contributor to the team. The problem, as both Phin and Ed point out, is that they are usually wired to take safe bets and seek out status, security and prestige. As a founder, you question their motives for wanting to be involved, worse you fear that they’ll jump ship when something shinier comes along.  If you can find one that truly wants to be involved, they usually have something to prove and that kind of fire translates into an employee that will be very hard to stop.

So when an MBA comes looking for startup opportunities as their modern “safety school” equivalent, they get shown the door.  If you put up every roadblock and they knock them down one by one and are relentless because either your idea or your team is something they need to be a part of, then open up and use their fire to your benefit.

Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

I’m Printing A Gun

I’m really tired of this nonsensical political debate about printing of weapons. Let’s get something straight, 3D Printing allows anyone to make anything they want. As easily as I was downloading illegal MP3s in middle school, people will be able to download and print physical items. No government, no organization and no army is going to be able to block this from happening.

The future of 3D printing offers individuals around the world immense powers of creation. From current materials we can easily print to biological and chemical materials that will one day be commonplace too. Talk about powerful weapons.

Let’s, as a society, stop trying to block things we don’t understand and talk about reasonable ways to achieve our shared objectives (keeping guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous or otherwise not fit to have them). Let me propose a simple law:

  1. Every gun in the United States should be licensed by the government. Similar testing as a driver’s license.
  2. If you are caught with a non-licensed gun you are severely fined. Minimum jail sentences for certain kinds of weaponry.

Does this stop the psychopath from printing some dangerous weapons and planning a mass killing at a school? No, but I for one cannot think of a single thing that would prevent that. Even today without a world filled with cheap 3D printers.

In the meantime I’m going to go print a one-shot gun and shoot it in a controlled, safe, environment for fun. Printing guns isn’t just for gun-toting republicans, this Independent (but mostly Liberal) Jewish boy wants to do it too.

I’m Printing A Gun

Have The Guts To Say No

If you love me
tell me you love me
don’t stab me man
– 50 Cent (High All The Time)

For some reason, many people seem to have been conditioned over time to choose tact over honesty. In both personal and business life this manifests itself as white lies, dropped e-mail threads, and ultimately, resentment. Why can’t we as a society be upfront with our thoughts and feelings? What is there lose?

Last week, I got an email from a friend talking about another entrepreneur: “[xyz knowledgeable entrepreneur] is totally unresponsive. To a point where I’ve written him off….all his friends believe the drop off is due to ego, he’s too good for people now”. Ugh, can you think of a worse insult for an entrepreneur (or for anyone)?

Like many of you I get a good amount of unsolicited requests, resumes and other small-asks. It’s annoying, sure, but I don’t ignore them, and usually send a polite “Sorry, but I can’t do this” response. No need to go through the rig-a-ma-roll of explaining the reasoning for your decision, just be direct and up-front. As adults, we should be accustomed to rejection (hell, entrepreneurs even more so) but I know for myself, and nearly everyone I know, hearing directly “no” is 100X better than being ignored, or worse, being lied to.

There are a million and one reasons why you may not want, or be able, to help someone. Have the decency and guts to close the loop and say what you think. We’ll be more productive, happy and successful for it.

Have The Guts To Say No

Searching For The 3D Printing Application Layer

I’m searching for today, instead I found tomorrow.

– Lil Wayne (Nightmares of the Bottom)

Additive manufacturing technologies like Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) are enabling enhancements to way we manufacture physical goods. The biggest issue is that few companies have found and commercialized products that can be mass-manufactured profitably using today’s 3D printing technologies. Either they need to be able to produce the parts at a lower cost or with features that aren’t possible with traditional manufacturing techniques. Much like when the iPhone first came out and there were very few applications, it took years for an “application layer” to emerge which leveraged the technology to create value in different verticals.

People are experimenting with different 3D printed products now, from fashion to aviation and everything in between. There are a few use cases where 3D printing has advantages over traditional manufacturers:

  1. Need for customization – We’re talking about where customization is either required or adds significant value. Braces, hearing aids, prosthetics, art and orthotics are all good examples. Bad examples include coffee mugs and iPhone cases, customizing as a novelty is not a long term competitive advantage.
  2. Designs that can only be made with 3D printers – Complex meshes, intricate internals and other features are sometimes only possible with additive manufacture. This art piece is a good example. When those features also add a competitive advantage to the product, then it creates real differentiation.
  3. Cost effective – In some cases, 3D printing is actually cheaper than traditional manufacturing. This is rare, but will be less so as the technology develops.

Obviously I think Sols is a perfect fit in buckets 1 & 2 and probably fits in bucket 3 against some of our competitors products (but not all). I’d love to hear about other products that people think are a fit.

Searching For The 3D Printing Application Layer