On Patents

Patents drive me crazy.

While on the one hand, they protect the intellectual property of a company or individual, on the other hand, they are completely ruining the technology industry. Instead of spending time innovating, and building systems for the betterment of our society, companies are embroiled in litigation with each other over incredibly vague and abstract patent concepts, and are thereby blocking a lot of incredible opportunities for innovation.

I think the patent system needs to be reinvented. Here’s how I think it should work:

  • The first person or company to submit a valid patent (the current rules on this are okay*) on intellectual property should be awarded the patent.
  • *However, patents should not be awarded purely on design unless the design is critical to the functionality (such as a particular shape that allows a function to work). In essence, technology patents should be on function, not form.
  • The patent should immediately apply for 3 years if it’s related to a physical product or hardware (a tangible item).
  • The patent should immediately apply for 2 years if it’s a business concept or software product. Basically, if it’s an intangible or semi-tangible idea.
Now, here’s where it needs to be very clear:
  • If the intellectual property (IP) is usable and complete (ie, a fully drafted model for intangibles, or a working prototype for tangibles), then the patent should extend for a base period of, say, 50 years.
  • However, if during that time the IP fails to procure revenue, fails to make it to market, or fails to become publicly available in any manner, the patent should only apply for a maximum of 10 years.
  • If it’s a tangible patent (product or hardware) but the IP owner has not yet built a prototype or physical product, the patent should apply for only 3 years.
  • If it’s an intangible patent (concept, model or software), and the patent owner has not yet produced a working model or usable product from it, the patent should apply for 2 years.

In effect, on those latter two, if you secure a patent, but fail to produce anything under that patent, the patent should be revoked after 3 years for tangible items, 2 years for intangible. However, there should then be a grace period after that, to be fair for things like economic conditions that make the 2-3 year period reasonable:

  • The patent should remain vague on public records (a description without full IP details) for a maximum of 2 years after being awarded the patent, to give the patent holder a reasonable time to secure a working prototype, if applicable.
  • For a functional patent (one that applied for 50 years), the patent can simply be renewed, but the above conditions must still be met.
  • For a functional patent that failed to produce revenue, or for a tangible or intangible patent that never reached a completed state, at the end of the patent period, the patent should be automatically made available for sale, with a price set at 150% of the cost of registering the patent. The patent owner may optionally “repurchase” their own patent.
  • Any buyer (including the original owner) now has half the time available to fulfill all of the above (except for the 50-year patent, provided the rules are still being met).
  • The process can repeat until a patent has a 30-day life or less, at which time it becomes void.
And then one additional magic rule:
  • If you fail to allow your patent to be licensed to any other companies, all of the above times are immediately cut in half at the time you are awarded the patent; whether you are awarded the patent by merely having it approved, or if it’s by purchasing it.
And one exception:
  • If you are awarded a patent and are then able to license the patent to another company (without producing a tangible product yourself), that company must meet the above conditions (ie, creating a working prototype) in the same timeframe as though they owned the patent themselves. But if the license ends, or if the product doesn’t meet the above criteria, the same timeframes still apply. This prevents someone from securing a license, but then simply never producing anything from it. They would still need to meet the criteria as though they themselves owned the patent.

Basically, this would completely eliminate patent trolls, and would prevent any company from securing a patent and then simply blocking anyone else from implementing it while the owning company or individual simply sits on it waiting to collect money. To ensure that happens, a company would be perfectly free to develop a product that is a complete rip-off of a patent, and then simply wait out the patent’s life and either purchase the patent, or wait until it expires and then produce a working product with no licensing requirements. This gives the owning company or individual time to make their patent usable (hence the brief period where the patent is not publicly available) in order to secure the 50 year patent, or effectively give up their rights to the patent. Meanwhile, another company may steal the idea and owe you no royalties, but really, if you can’t produce a usable product from your patent, you don’t deserve to own it. With the licensing requirement as an option, this ensures that companies who are genuinely interested in the patent will be motivated to license it, rather than risk waiting for it to become void, knowing that a competitor could simply scoop up the patent.

In effect, if you invent a concept for, say, software, but it never sees the light of day, your patent goes up for sale in 2 years. If it fails to sell within 1 year, it becomes void. If it sells, the buying company then has to the end of that 1 year period to produce something usable. If they fail to, the next buying company has 6 months. Then 3 months, then 1.5 months, and then the patent is void. Thus, a software patent that never comes to fruition is void in just shy of four years. With hardware, just shy of six.

Goodbye patent trolls. Goodbye ridiculous litigation over intellectual property. Hello fair competition and innovation.

What do you think?

Windows 8 is Getting There…

I like what Microsoft is trying to do with Windows 8. I really do. But they still have three fundamental flaws they don’t seem able to overcome.

  1. They still have Ballmer at the helm. Get someone with a character like Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook and they’d be all set.
  2. They still don’t have a clue how to market to the average consumer. Stop telling us how cool Windows is because of its specs, and start showing us how to use it in every day life. Use words like “magical.”
  3. They need to build their own hardware. Don’t release “Windows 8 for Tablets”… MAKE a tablet. Make it beautiful, reliable, and don’t quit on it two years later. Make Windows 8 work perfectly on it. Then rebrand ALL of your software with the Metro look and feel so it’s a consistent experience.

They’ve got a good shot at making this thing work. Here’s hoping they get it right.

Focus Mode

November is nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month. While the goal is to produce a novel of 50,000 words by the end of the month, I’m likely to be far short of that.

However, I’m also not writing a novel. I’m taking the time to focus on writing a guide, if you will, to teach non-project managers how to do project management without getting into the overkill practices that are commonly associated with project management disciplines.

It’s based on the SMART management system I developed about a decade ago, and that I’ve been using for years to help guide projects through to completion. And in the process of doing this, I’ve realized that while a goal of 50,000 words is a great target to set, a goal of producing a focused result is better. Whether it be 100,000 words, or 1,000 words, the point is: can I be focused enough to provide the minimum of what is needed to get the point across?

I may not get it done by the end of November. But the concept of nanowrimo is all about the focus. Dedicating your time each day to a focused task, and achieving that result by a deadline. And in the end, that’s really the essence of project management: setting a deadline, and working hard to meet the result. The idea of a “focus mode” has been around for a while, and even tech companies are capitalizing on the effectiveness of it; with companies like Apple encouraging “full screen apps” and the single-window model of the iPad, which encourages uni-tasking above multi-tasking.

[pullquote2 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]How are you using the month of November? Are you writing a novel, a training manual, a story, or a guidebook? When November is over, will you turn off focus mode and go back to chaos mode? Or are you willing to turn December into another focused month with a specific goal to meet by the 31st?[/pullquote2]

Before the new year, and the abundance of abandoned new years’ resolutions, why not make a decision now–today–to turn each month into a focused month. Start with November. If you aren’t writing a novel, make November a month to plan out the next 12. Each month, pick something you really want, or need, to accomplish in your life, and set a focus for the entire month. Make December a family-focused month. Make January a decluttering month. Make February a rebudgeting month. Whatever your life needs are, make it a focus for one month each year. And every once in a while, don’t forget to set aside time to reevaluate the things that matter, so that each month becomes a focus on things you really need to concentrate on.

Good luck, and let me know how you make out in the comments!

Responding to Failure

By now, I’m sure most people have heard of the global outage experienced by RIM a few weeks ago. Shortly after the outage, RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis offered a public apology for the issue, and RIM itself offered free apps and a month of free technical support in response, which were received with mixed reactions.

My comment, on both Twitter and Facebook that RIM clearly just “doesn’t get it” was met with some confusion as well. One person indicating that the difference between a regular mobile plan and a smartphone plan is about $10/month. So, a refund on services equates to about 30 cents a day, so a three-day outage means a $1 refund.

All joking aside, that’s actually accurate. A recent lawsuit confirms that it equates to only about $1.25. The cost of the outage, per person, is negligible. But, at least that has a monetary value that directly corresponds to the outage. $100 worth of free apps (most of which are games, and targeted at business professionals) is just out in left field. And that’s the reason why I said that RIM doesn’t get it. As a company that appeals to businesses as a primary market, the offering of free apps and free technical support was an insulting and degrading statement.

If your product is so problematic that you need technical support, such that a month of free support is valuable, you have a problem with your product right there. Most businesses however, run on annual budgets, and paid technical support is budgeted. Adding a month of free support to the end of the plan also means that billing cycles just got shifted by a month, and the cost associated with making budget adjustments accordingly far exceed the $1 refund or the lost business associated with the outage. As many companies are relying on mail communication through enterprise-grade servers, a three day outage is a serious problem when they are paying for a service that offers a 99.99% uptime guarantee. For the record, 99.99% uptime means that service is “guaranteed” not to be down for more than 20 minutes per year.

When you’re paying for that, any outage–even accidents–is considered professionally unacceptable. Most home users won’t care. But business users are paying for service guarantees, and make decisions accordingly. Three days of downtime can translate to millions in lost revenue.

Personally, I think RIM would have been better off to offer no free apps at all, and simply stick with the public apology, fix the problem, show how they’ll prevent it in the future, and move on. The free apps was just a completely off-track, insulting statement. It sent a message that RIM wasn’t concerned with the effects of the outage, and was more interested in simply pacifying people with something that in the end really didn’t cost them anything. It sent a message that RIM doesn’t get how businesses operate any more. It sent a message that a business professional’s downtime can be pacified by giving him or her a free copy of The SIMS to pass the time.

And so I stick with my original comment, that RIM simply doesn’t get it.

But what about your business? How do you respond to your clients and customers when your own services fail to meet expectations? How do you value your customer when your mistakes cause an interruption to their work? Do you see it as a cost of doing business to pacify the customer? Or do you see it as an opportunity to really learn your customers’ needs, and provide solutions that will help them improve in the future?

What’s Next?

I consume a large volume of industry news on a daily basis, most of which is general business and technology oriented. It seems that a vast majority of the content is focused on what’s next.

Focused on tomorrow’s technology.

Focused on what’s the next big thing.

Focused on Company X’s new, soon to be unveiled product.

Focused on what we don’t have, but we can have later.

It never catches up. There’s always tomorrow’s technology, and always something we’re supposed to look forward to. We’re so focused on tomorrow’s things, that we miss today’s moments.

When you’re planning your day, are you thinking about what you’re going to deliver tomorrow, or are you thinking about what you need to deliver today? Tomorrow has its place in planning, but once the planning is done, tomorrow is most importantly not today.

Plan for tomorrow all you want. But live for today.

Leaving a Legacy

As most of the world has already heard, Apple co-founder and multi-industry leader Steve Jobs died last Wednesday, a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. Millions of people worldwide mourned the loss felt by the Jobs’ family, by Apple, and by the technology industry in general. I read many quotes from people often saying, “why do I feel so sad over the death of someone I’ve never met?”

And equally as common as the question, I heard answers: “because even though you never met him, you use things every day that have been heavily influenced by him, and are signed with his passion.”

Whether you loved or hated the work Steve Jobs did is irrelevant: no one can deny that his influence over the past 35 years, and more specifically the past decade, has been world-changing. His impact not only shaped the tech industry, but the music and entertainment industries as well. His legacy will live on long after his death.

But this article isn’t about Steve Jobs. Nor is it about Apple, gadgetry, technology, music, or entertainment. This article is about you. Jobs was an illegitimate baby, given up for adoption, and a college drop-out. In the time this happened, these factors meant that the odds for success were stacked heavily against him. And yet, he changed not just a company, and not just an industry, but three industries, forever.

And so, the challenge. What are you doing this year to usher in change? What are you doing this month? This week? What will you do today? When today ends, can you look back on it with a healthy pride and say, “this is one step towards changing the world?” Maybe not the whole world… but at least yours. What are you doing today that contributes to your legacy for tomorrow?

[blockquote align=”center” variation=”purple” cite=”Steve Jobs”]For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.[/blockquote]

With Great Exposure…

I am amazed at how many times I’ve heard clients who have said “I have some work for you… it doesn’t pay well, but it will give you great exposure.” As though it’s an honor to be able to work for them, almost to the extent that we should pay them for the opportunity. Even more amazing is how many of those people actually believe that their exposure is so fantastic that consultants would be fools not to jump at the offer. It’s as though they think their affiliation is so valuable that doing business with them is like shaking hands in front of a crowd, and everyone will want to work with you because you work with them.

There was a time in my career where I was suckered into this lie. A time when I thought exposure was far better than great pay. But the truth is, clients with that mentality actually bring neither great pay, nor great exposure. What they bring is frustration and high demands. They want a Mercedes for the price of a Chevy. They want premium service to advance their business, not an opportunity to help you grow yours.

When they say, “it will give you great exposure,” what they’re really saying is, “I want this to give me great exposure.” And they come borderline close to adding, “I don’t really give a rip what you get out of it.”

If you’re a small business owner, particularly one who offers consulting-based services, recognize these problem clients right from the start. Watch out for phrases like, “we don’t have a lot of money,” “we think this could be a great opportunity for you,” “this will go like gangbusters,” or “we’ll be able to pay you once we get our seed capital, which is coming ______.”

Most of these people are perfectly well intentioned. Most of them actually believe what they’re saying. Most of them aren’t trying to defraud you. Most of them are wrong.

New Site Launch

I launched a new version of my web site today! While the old site had served me well for a while, it was gradually losing focus as I had repeatedly attempted to incorporate past blog material, and content from other blogs that I had created. Merging everything into a single site was a good starting plan, but as refined what I needed to focus on, the old content became less and less relevant.

And so, the new site is trimmed down, with the old content archived away. From this point onward, StevePye.me will focus on three key topics:

  1. Information Systems (a discipline focusing on a blend of business and computer science; My Link | Wikipedia’s Link)
  2. Project and Process Management (focusing largely on business and information systems projects; Project Management | Process Management)
  3. Entrepreneurship and Small Business / Technology News, Tips and Advice*
* This one is a little more open ended. As part of providing IS consulting, news and information relative to my customers and clients (typically entrepreneurs and small- to mid-sized businesses) is often of great value to business owners and managers. The blog area of this site will focus on providing helpful tips and advice, as well as reporting key industry events that can impact you or your business.
I hope you like the change, and if there’s anything you’d like to see added or modified, please feel free to drop me a comment, or connect with me on Twitter or Google+.

Business Service Pricing

I’ve been to sites several times in the past where consultants, contractors, designers, or developers fail to provide any information on pricing or fees for their services. It always frustrated me, but as I moved along further in my business work, I discovered the reason: pricing is highly subjective when doing business development, and fixed rates always scare people off.

Sure, there’s a standard hourly rate that can easily apply. However most hourly rates are set according to generic criteria that cover a wide range of services. And most often, that hourly rate is significantly higher than the specific services that may be required. Without directly engaging with a person about their specific needs, it’s often impossible to provide a blanket price, especially for entrepreneurs and start-ups.

In my case, for instance, I do have a “base rate” that I start with for business consulting. This rate applies to the development of corporate-grade business material (business plans, product pricing, department organization guides, employee manuals, etc), and usually applies to medium-sized businesses (between 25 and 250 employees). That rate is $120/hr.

Most small businesses–especially startups–simply cannot afford that rate, nor would I expect them to. But depending on the specific service, I have other rates ranging from $15 to $80/hr.

Several years ago, I posed a question to a client: How much does rope cost? Their response, “I don’t know… it depends on the rope.” I took that moment to explain that consulting for a business is much like measuring and charging for rope. Whether you buy a lightweight string, or an industrial steel cable has a huge impact on the price. Whether you simply need three feet of it from a readily available supply, or 150,000 feet to suspend a bridge has a tremendous impact on the availability and cost. Whether you just need a piece now, or whether you need a steady supply every week for three years has an impact on the supply, and subsequently the price.

And so the answer that I always cringed at, “it depends,” becomes the most common answer I can give. And that’s entirely because everyone’s needs are different. Some simply want a few hours of advice and help. Some want development work done on their business plan, project plan, or other systems. Some want entire software platforms or web sites developed. Some just want a mentor to chat with.

I’ve found, however, that most entrepreneurs or start-up businesses effectively have a budget of $0. And I recognize that, because I’ve been there. So there are three options that I make available for fees.

  1. I almost always quote for a project, and specific deliverables. This way, you are not simply agreeing to an hourly rate without any accountability as to how many hours are being accumulated. You know the cost before a project starts, and you owe nothing until it does. You also know that the quote will stand as the final price, as long as you don’t make any changes to the scope of the project.
  2. I offer a prearranged, mutually agreeable hourly rate that will cover any and all work requested up to a maximum number of hours per month. This allows a business owner to budget, say, $250/month for about 5 hours of monthly availability. So why is this rate lower than my usual rate? Because a fixed monthly amount can be budgeted and accounted for differently than other “on-demand” services, which typically cost more because there is a level of urgency attached, or there is a demand for on-site availability on request. My regular rate takes those kinds of constraints into consideration, while a pre-arranged monthly rate allows me to keep rates lower.
  3. I offer a payment option that is subjective to your business’s revenue. This doesn’t mean “taking a portion of your income until your bill is paid,” but rather, “a mutually agreeable rate relative to projected revenue.” This means that if you required a $3,500 project, but couldn’t afford that up front, you could assess your business’s projected revenue stream over, say, the next twelve months, and agree to a payment that would be sustainable without affecting your profit negatively. The payment doesn’t need to be the same every month, and can be adjusted higher during busy periods, and lower during slower ones. In contrast to a loan, where you pay a fixed percentage, or a fixed dollar amount monthly, the arrangement would be to pay an estimated amount that is affordable based on the income you expect over a certain period. Specific options can be arranged on request.
And as I always encourage every client directly, please feel free to simply contact me (make sure you supply a return method-of-contact!), or engage with me directly on Twitter if you’d like a fast and direct response.

Getting in Contact

On three separate occasions over the past two weeks, I’ve received questions through the Ask Me section of this site without including a way for me to contact the requester.

I like to leave the option open for people to supply contact information at their discretion, rather than making it a required field. This also allows people to enter alternative contact methods such as Twitter or instant messages. It also ensures that if the question is of a generic nature, I can reply publicly as a post, rather than directly contacting the person posing the question.

However, to those who posed questions over the past two weeks or so, if the question is of a more direct nature, I would strongly encourage adding a point of contact (even if you just supply a temporary email address), so that I can appropriately respond and personalize the response to you.