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IP Strategy in Emerging Markets

Cross-posted from the Endeavor blog.

Recently, Endeavor Global Network Member David Frazee gave a presentation to Endeavor Global staff on common startup mistakes and IP strategy. This blog post is adapted from his presentation.

Endeavor Entrepreneurs often tell us they have no need for IP strategy; in their countries, IP enforcement is seen as comedy and filing for a patent is tantamount to handing your blueprints over to competition. David Frazee, a partner in the Palo Alto office of K&L Gates LLP, disagrees with this sentiment and argues that IP strategy is important regardless of your company’s location and size.

What is good IP strategy?

In thinking about intellectual property, many people conjure images of engineers hunched over esoteric designs corresponding with engineers at the U.S. Patent Office and doing the secret engineer handshake. David advocates an alternative vision of intellectual property, one that goes far beyond a company’s engineering team.

In David’s view, the legal question—What is patentable?—comes last when formulating an IP strategy. The first and more important question to ask is, What is really worth patenting? Implicit in the question is a business strategy perspective rather than a legal or even a technical perspective.

To determine what is really worth patenting, David suggests a process of competitive mapping in which members from diverse groups within a company get together for a brainstorming session. By asking three questions—What are we doing today? What are we not doing today? Could our invention apply in other fields?—a company can map out how its technology fits into the competitive landscape. Soliciting answers from everybody, from engineers to marketing personnel, guarantees that every innovation is viewed from multiple vantage points, and the cross-examination helps wring out maximum utility from each innovation. It’s a great team-building exercise and one that drives further innovation.

This is the real magic of the process: innovation changes from being technically delightful to being the platform for future growth. As for patents? They are the byproduct of this strategic process, and when the legal question finally arises—What is patentable?—cost-benefit analysis should be applied.

Pragmatic paranoia is advised

At Endeavor, we often hear from our entrepreneurs that the proper legal counsel required for pursuing sound IP strategy is prohibitively expensive. David’s Silicon Valley experiences tell a different story. Relative to the cost of making IP mistakes, legal counsel is cheap and the most cost-effective IP strategy is to start off on legally sound footing.

Early stage IP mistakes are surprisingly easy to make. In most non-U.S. countries, patent rights are forfeited from the first moment of public disclosure. Entrepreneurs should be aware of their country-specific regulations, but regardless of legal domicile, it is clear that IP mistakes made early in a company’s history can have dramatic repercussions.

Of course, not everything that can be patented should be patented. There are expensive patents and there are cheap patents. The expensive ones are those obtained for vanity’s sake, and the cheap ones are those that have withstood the strategic process mentioned above as well as rigorous cost-benefit analysis. The costs of filing for a patent are the same regardless of company size; this uniformity of cost bodes well for nimble startups, which can stake their ground and gain the attention of bigger players by filing strategically.

The bottom line? IP strategy is as relevant to an emerging market startup as basic business strategy—in fact, the two are inseparable. The beauty for emerging market entrepreneurs is that patents, along with their sometimes shoddy legal enforcement, are not integral to the process.

Posted in IP.

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In Which I Temper My Enthusiasm

In a previous post, I wrote:

“I had been giving technology too much credit and myself too little.  Gadgets–no matter how neat they are–are no more than tools, and I–as the user–have ultimate authority in deciding how and for what they are used.”

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr serves as a gentle admonishment against such unguarded technology optimism.  After finishing the book, my previous writing struck me as naive in its purely instrumental view.

Technology mediates our experience of the world, and the mediation inevitably distorts.  We cannot simply think of technology as means towards various ends because it is not so innocent.  Drawing aptly from Marshall McLuhan, Carr writes:

What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it–and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.

Ultimately, I think something like Facebook should be celebrated as a tool for connecting to friends and filtering information.  But the enthusiasm needs to be tempered with wariness about the effect of the medium.  Perhaps Facebook increases the vitality of our respective social networks at the expense of our geographically bound communities.  Perhaps it crowds out more substantive relationships and interactions.

In any case, the thing is to be vigilant, aware.  Only then can we use technology to its best uses. “Constant vigilance!” as Mad-Eye Moody tells us.

Posted in Design, Social Media.

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Civic Engagement as a Design Problem

Voter turnout for US presidential elections usually hovers somewhere around 50%.  There are a couple ways to think about this turnout.  For people focused on civic duty and the virtues of civic engagement, the turnout suggests political apathy in the United States.  For economists, the turnout might seem surprisingly high considering that the marginal benefit of each individual vote is entirely negligible.

But what if we look at the electoral process through the lens of design?  In thinking about the design of elections, our attention would inevitably focus on the marginal costs of registration, taking time off work to get to a voting booth and then waiting in long lines for a turn.  That sounds awfully like the perspective of an economist.  But a design perspective will look at those marginal costs and emphasize the dynamism and malleability of those costs and ask how they can be reduced.

What if the whole process of voting were made available online or with smartphone apps and added as a supplement to existing voting methods?  The costs of registering and voting would be rendered negligible and many more people would vote.

There are plenty of objections one might raise about such a system.  For example, such a system would give a bias towards those with easy access to computers, Internet or smartphones, things that are not universally affordable.  Or it might lend itself to digital manipulation, an Orwellian black box of vote counting.  But this is not what interests me about the thought experiment.  What interests me is that smartphone apps, coupled with a design perspective, can make the cost of different activities nearly negligible.  And that is a powerful idea.

Posted in Design.

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The Worst Kind of Book

The Mesh is the worst kind of book around.  It’s a blog that wants to be a book, but it has none of the advantages of either medium and all of the disadvantages.  The chapters are short, the insights superficial and off-the-cuff.  The book assumes a short attention span so is filled with interjecting “case studies” that literally interrupt the text in the fashion of hyperlinks.  Only there aren’t any hyperlinks because it is a print book, so the result is simply distracting.  The bibliography consists of a smattering of print resources and then a whole lot of online articles that were “accessed” between March 16, 2010 and March 25, 2010.  One gets the impression that all “research” for the book was conducted in that span of nine days.

It could be a worthwhile blog because it is a compendium of websites and resources, but it’s a book.  Oops.

The ideas can be summed up in two sentences. 1) Information technology is uprooting a goods-based economy and enabling the services-based economy that Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins presaged in Natural Capitalism; 2) This means that every commercial interaction needs to be viewed in terms of its information exchange and not just in goods being swapped for money.

My takeaway: The Mesh, as Gansky calls it, is all-encompassing, its scope all-pervasive.  It includes not just social media and online retailers but also brick-and-mortar businesses and government.  All this is best understood as one large movement towards an information- and data-based economy.  Not really news to most.

I think these are worthwhile points.  Just not worth the $25.95 sticker price.  C’mon.

Posted in Data.

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My thoughts exactly

Ha.  I feel like someone has been reading my blog.

Joking aside, it is apparent I am not the only person thinking along the lines of my previous couple posts.

From Next American City:

What makes games so useful is that the dynamics imbedded in most games are powerful psychological devices that can easily motivate people. These dynamics – such as asking players to be at a certain place at a certain time or to complete a series of tasks to accumulate rewards – incentivize participation in what ordinarily might be throughout of as dull activities. Put simply, it makes them more fun.

Governments can use these dynamics when designing the processes they use to interact with citizens. For example, imagine a game designed for citizens of a town where people get points for voting in local elections, or attending a council meeting, or visiting a local park.

Posted in Social Media.

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Bill Easterly recently alerted me to the existence of this interactive map put forth by the US Recovery Act.

The map is full of detailed information about where federal stimulus money has been spent.  In theory, the map is a great tool for accountability.  It is easily accessible and generally user-friendly.  But how many of your friends have ever heard of it?  How inclined do you feel to use it to see how your local politicians are using stimulus money?

The map is a bit overwhelming in the sheer amount of information it presents.  I felt a bit defeated by it all after just a few minutes of playing around with it.  So I got to asking myself, how could this information be made yet more palatable?  How can people be incentivized to investigate where their tax dollars are going?

I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, the answer might be in games.

Posted in Maps, Social Media.

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TED Talk Round-Up

In my most recent spate of TED Talks, it’s all about games and motivation.

Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus, describes how our leisure time–previously eaten up by TV watching–is in transition towards a more fluid consumption-production dynamic.  Social media makes it easier than ever to participate, contribute and publishUshahidi and lolcats are given as the two different directions in which we can take our social media production.  The real gist, though, is that leisurely activity in the age of social media is not dominated by extrinsic motivations; rather, intrinsic motivations play a dominant role in how we express our creativity and generosity online.

Intrinsic motivations, you say?  Jane McGonigal, drawing from the wildly popular online games of World of Warcraft and Farmville, explains that people are finding refuge en masse in online games because they cater very effectively to intrinsic motivations: our desire for community, constant feedback, status and social recognition.  To illustrate her point, she talks about the “epic win,” a triumph at once challenging and achievable.  Reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s classic talk on “flow.”  She challenges us all to think of how games might help us collaboratively tackle the world’s most difficult problems (peak oil, for example).

Seth Priebatsch, recently the subject of a NYTimes feature, discusses how he incorporates game dynamics in his new venture, SCVNGR.  Whereas the last decade was one of building connections via social networks, the next decade, Seth argues, will be of using social networks to influence behavior.  Thus, the “game layer on top of the world” that he seeks to build.

What’s the point of all this?  We are just at the beginning of understanding how our interactions online can influence our behavior in “the real world.”  The implications of how we choose to spend our leisure time: tremendous.

Posted in Community, Social Media.

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Unintended Consequences

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love…

Perhaps the most oft-quoted couple of sentences from Adam Smith’s Wealth of NationsAmartya Sen uses the quote as the starting point to discuss the “theory of unintended consequences.”

It is not so much that some consequences are unintended, but that causal analysis can make the unintended effects reasonably predictable.  Indeed, the butcher may predict that exchanging meat for money not only benefits him, but also the consumer (the buyer of meat), so that the relationship can be expected to work on both sides and is thus sustainable. And the brewer, the baker and the consumer may, similarly, also expect these economic relations to be sustainable.  An unintended consequence need not be unpredictable, and much depends on this fact. Indeed, the confidence of each party in the continuation of such market relations rests specifically on such predictions being made or being implicitly presumed. (257, Development as Freedom)

How does this relate to the social media and open data trends I have been blogging about of late?  Well, if you are trying to design social media to provide feedback on government services, perhaps an approach with that explicit intention is misguided.  Unintended consequences dominate Internet behavior.  The creators of Twitter didn’t set out to spawn a food cart renaissance.  The creators of the Dong Bang Shin Ki fan site didn’t set out to spur protesters on against the import of U.S. beef (my favorite anecdote from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus).

While it is for all practical purposes impossible to foresee the specific uses of platforms such as Twitter and fan web sites, it is possible to understand the conditions that enable innovative uses.  When you increase the openness and connectivity of a device or platform, you open up a whole new world of possibilities. This, I believe, is the wisdom that needs to be embraced by Gov 2.0 enthusiasts.  The question, as framed by Shirky, is how one can guide unintended consequences more in the direction of civic value rather than ICanHasCheezburger.

Posted in Design, Networks, Social Media.

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Mom Maps, an Example

Okay, in theory, this all sounds great.  Advances in mobile technology and social media have democratized both the generation of and access to data, and this democratization strengthens political accountability.  We’re not just talking about the people out there who have the will and time to spout things into the blogosphere, we’re talking everybody who has ten seconds and a smart phone.  A new era in governance.  Sounds great.  But can you give me a concrete example of how this plays out?

Mom Maps.  It started with a Bay Area mom who wanted to keep a database of kid-friendly places to share as a resource with other moms.  It became an iPhone app.  Then its smart phone platform acquired a dynamic dimension that allowed moms to rate places and discuss changes as they occurred.  It became crowd-sourced vigilance, a way to monitor in real-time whether or not public spaces are kid-friendly.  Moms started using the app, and a conversation started to emerge about broken glass in playgrounds, swings that had become defunct, shady characters and drug use in the area.  And the city started to listen.  Hear Jill Seman’s story about the panhandle park in San Francisco here.

Posted in Community, Data, Maps, Public Spaces, Social Media.

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Oakland Crimespotting: Why Design Matters

Let’s say that you are moving to a new city and want to know the relative safety of different places you are considering.  It’d be helpful to have easy access to public data about crime reports in the city, right?  Lots of police departments make their records public, but even if information is public, accessibility is a whole different issue.  In the world of data, democratic accessibility roughly equates to usability, i.e. the quality and intuitiveness of the user interface.

That’s where Oakland Crimespotting, an organization I learned about at sf.govfresh, comes into play.  From their mission statement:


Unfortunately, CrimeWatch suffers from a few drawbacks that we believe Crimespotting helps to address. CrimeWatch is inaccessible to many popular browsers, and does not “gracefully degrade” for maximum flexibility. CrimeWatch provides maps of crime reports but makes them difficult to explore.

Our map view is completely explorable – it’s possible to pan and zoom, select date ranges in the past, and view specific kinds of crimes. You can also share links directly to a particular view of the map, which is important for sharing and publishing information. If you don’t have the required Flash plug-in to view the interactive map, we have a browseable crime database with maps in image form for combinations of dates and types of crime.

We believe that this map-first approach is a valuable and sensible way to publish information for people to use – everyone knows how to find their house, school, or workplace on a map, but few people remember relevant details such as the city council district or police beat these places occupy.

An important source of inspiration for Oakland Crimespotting comes from Chicago Crime, a freely browseable database of crimes reported in Chicago created by Adrian Holovaty and Wilson Miner.

CrimeWatch is the mapping interface created by the Oakland Police Department.  The first step to accessing data on their website looks something like this:

Meanwhile, Crimespotting brings you directly to the information you seek:

Which is more user-friendly, more accessible, more likely to be used by the public?

Posted in Data, Design, Maps.

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