From Anne Giles Clelland, founder and president of VT KnowledgeWorks member company, Handshake Media, Incorporated. A version of this post first appeared on Handshake 2.0.
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. 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 did follow some 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.
Handshake Media, Incorporated is a communications technology company specializing in public relations and mobile technologies to generate market awareness and market action for its business-to-business and business-to-consumer clients. Handshake Media creates both the method and the message to achieve meaningful connection and strategic results for corporations, organizations and enterprises seeking global reach for their products and services. Handshake Media, Incorporated is based in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA and is a member of VT KnowledgeWorks.
VT KnowledgeWorks encourages and enables creative entrepreneurship world-wide, through innovative curriculum, local business resource centers, and a global network of cooperating regions, all focused on three essential contributors to success: clear understanding of fundamental business principles; access to timely, relevant information; and meaningful personal and corporate relationships. It is a subsidiary of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, supported by the continuing confidence and enthusiasm of its clients, sponsors and friends, both corporate and individual. Its world headquarters is in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.
VT KnowledgeWorks sponsors include Attaain, Inc., BB&T, The Branch Group, Handshake 2.0, Harris Office Furniture, Hodges, Jones & Mabry, P.C., Hutchison Law Group, LeClairRyan, New River Valley Intellectual Property Law, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and The Becher Agency (TBA).