Author Archive

Protecting the Protectable

Posted: December 14, 2015 by Bill Cunningham in Uncategorized

Robin-miller-BlogIn today’s competitive marketplace, startup companies look to gain an economic advantage however possible. Not everyone plays fairly – so, for those who do, it has become increasingly important to protect proprietary business information.   The law provides two ways to protect this information: patents and trade secrets. While certain types of information can only be protected with patents and other types of information can only be protected as a trade secret, many types of information can be protected by both. A company must choose the best protection under the circumstances. Choose carefully – because patents and trade secrets are not created equally. When safeguarding your confidential information, the cost, the time it takes, the length of the protection must be weighed against the overall reason for protecting the information.

Patent protection. A patent can only be obtained by filing for protection with the US Patent and Trademark Office. The steps required to even attempt to get a patent could be cost prohibitive for smaller companies – a simple patent application and fees can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. Once you file the application, it can take years before the patent ever issues – if the application is even accepted. In the end, this investment may not be worthwhile because patents are only good a limited number of years. After the patent expires, the information is no longer exclusive to the patent holder and competitors can gain access to it. If the goal is to derive exclusive, indefinite economic benefit from the information, process, or procedure, then trade secret protection may better suit your needs.

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Think Big and Change the World

Posted: July 12, 2015 by Bill Cunningham in Innovation, Planning, Startup

bill-cunningham-sc“Whatever you are thinking, think bigger” – Gaye Crispin

Entrepreneurs love to think big. Go big or go home. Life is too short to think small things. And so on.

Of course the first spark, that twinkle in your eye may be small at the start. Taking your idea to a full-blown entrepreneurial rocket ride to Mars requires big, big thinking. Look back at “really cool” ideas that have changed the way the world works.

The music business has gone through tumultuous change since Edison figured out how to record sound and play it back. From the first 78 rpm record which begat the LP Vinyl record which begat the infamous 8-track tape player which begat an even more convenient cassette player which begat the CD and DVD revolution all leading up to a totally digital downloading economy. And now this is birthing the streaming economy so that you can have 14 million songs at your fingertips.

Did Edison even have a clue of what was to come. Of course not, but he imagined great futures with his technologies.

Uber is transforming the transportation (and logistics) business in many ways. Whenever a discussion about Uber occurs, people talk about how they ambushed the taxi companies — they had no clue that competitive force was growing. Look deeper into how Uber is becoming part of our urban fabric and you will find more industries for which Uber is becoming a competitor. First of all, there is the automobile industry — many Uber riders say they leave their car home on weekends and party on down to Over-the-Rhine so they don’t have to worry about having that extra drink. So if you use your car two fewer days a week, your car will last longer — and you won’t buy as many cars in your lifetime — completely changing the car industry forecasts.

Many Uber drivers earn a decent living driving revelers back to their cars the morning after a wedding reception or big night on the town. So the number of DUI’s and police required go down. There are fewer life threatening injuries — so emergent health care population reduces. Fewer court dates, attorneys and doctors out of work and safer roads are all a result of Uber’s enabling people to be more responsible — and it is economical — so the market forces are driving this new-found responsibility! Imagine that.

As Uber expands it reach into new markets, (now funded by Google to the tune of $225M investment last year) more changes will proliferate naturally through these market forces. Buying groceries, picking up kids after school, and filling up space on tractor-trailers will benefit from Uber and Uber-like startups. The impact gets magnified and duplicated across many market segments.

One of the key elements to success in your startup is the belief that you can create big ideas. If you are not creating big ideas, then you won’t get the time of day from investors. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, raised the first part of a $100 million round without showing anyone a business plan. Why did those investors invest? Because Dean Kamen  was a big thinker — he had a track record to doing big things (Like inventing the mobile insulin pump when we was a sophomore in college — and that was before he dropped out.)

Swing for the fences, throw the long ball, skate to where the puck is heading and go for the gusto!

 

Creating Value Out of an Internship

Posted: April 6, 2015 by Bill Cunningham in Culture, People

bill-cunningham-sc“An apprenticeship is the most logical way to success. The only alternative is overnight stardom, but I can’t give you a formula for that.”            — Chet Atkins

Interns will begin to descend upon companies in just a few weeks and many companies are ready and many may not be. We just launched an organized internship program this year rather than have individual managers hire their own interns. First, we interviewed all of the managers who would have potential internship slots: Operations, Marketing, Quality Assurance, HR, Safety and Supply Chain. The intern program wants to achieve these three goals:

  1. Provide a meaningful work experience to give insight into our business and our industry so that the intern may decided to join us fulltime after graduation
  2. By providing a meaningful work experience, we hope to get value out of the internship by the work that gets completed, but also innovative ideas that will be generated by a fresh set of eyes on our business.
  3. Transform the interns into ambassadors for our company when they return to campus to recruit new management talent for the future. Because we are a B2B company, our profile is not on a lot of college student’s radars when they are looking for a career – yet we have many opportunities in marketing, supply chain and operations.

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Finding Money in Your Company

Posted: March 15, 2015 by Bill Cunningham in Manufacturing, Money, Operations, Planning

bill-cunningham-scOne of my business school professors quipped, “That business doesn’t have any problems that money won’t solve!” However, when you are that business and you need cash to stay in operation – it really isn’t that funny. Here are some tips to keep you going,

Start by looking for quarters in the sofa. When cleaning your house, and you lift up the cushions and find a few quarters – or when you reach in a pair of pants and find a five-spot, it gives you a great but short-lived feeling of wealth. The same can be true in your business if you look hard enough.

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Rapid Innovation

Posted: February 21, 2015 by Bill Cunningham in Innovation, People, Startup, Technology

bill-cunningham-sc“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”  – Steve Jobs – founder of Apple Computer

In my office I have a picture of Steve Jobs on one wall and Steve Blank facing him on the other. Mr. Jobs certainly needs no introduction, but Mr. Blank is not a household word around the Midwest as he is a veteran of 8 Silicon Valley tech companies and teaches at Stanford and Berkeley.  Steve Jobs believes customers can’t know what they want — we have to invent it for them.  Steve Blank, however, believes that you must find out what your customers need, and solve their problems. Which Steve do you follow?

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You Know It Don’t Come Easy

Posted: January 4, 2015 by Bill Cunningham in Culture, People, Startup

bill-cunningham Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues

And you know it don’t come easy”

ringoRingo Starr penned these words for his first solo hit back in 1971 which made the #4 spot on Billboard pop charts. The song highlights many parallels between the music business and startups. Founders all must pay their dues, forgoing the easy road or the obvious choice so they may “swing for the fences” with their startup.

Young founders have a difficult time understanding this because prospective investors want to know how the startup is going to become a home run. The main reason investors invest their money in startups is to get that home run. The opportunity to have a huge ROI on your investment (to cover all the lesser returns) is part of the emotional makeup of early stage investors.

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Ensure Your Business Nurtures Creative Thinking and New Ideas

Posted: December 14, 2014 by Bill Cunningham in Culture, Innovation

Entrepreneurs exude creativity! Right? Every small business owner loves thinking and trying new things. Correct-a-mundo? Well the answer to these questions is a resounding YES, but only for those small businesses who value and nurture new ideas. Many firms seem to have a great culture of innovation and free thinking, and yet, many firms don’. How do you convert your company from a don’ter to a doer?

Start at the top

Embrace new ideas with a passion. Conduct ideas sessions frequently. Constantly look at how to do things better. A great approach to ideation is the I-Power technique. Created by Martin Edelston, it gives the captains of commerce a compass to inspire innovation. Very simply, I-Power takes the old suggestion box off the wall and places it squarely in the center of every group activity in your firm. At every meeting, each attendee must bring an idea on one of the company’s ideas forms. The CEO reviews them personally every weekend, and every one gets paid a dollar for each idea, and two dollars for a great idea. Now that doesn’t sound like much, but for Mr. Edelston, it generated about 30,000 new ideas in one year from his 275 employees. Some were good; some were bad; some were crazy; some were glad. His $30,000 investment in ideas gave everyone the license to think. By the way, one of these ideas saved $750,000 in printing costs . Nice ROI!

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The Case for a Strong Board

Posted: November 9, 2014 by Bill Cunningham in People, Planning
Clay Mathile, Founder of IAMS

Clay Mathile, Founder of IAMS

If you’re willing to work and subject yourself to the scrutiny of other’s [creating a board] is the best investment you’ll ever make in your life.”

     — Clay Mathile, Aileron’s founder and former chairman of Iams Corporation.

Entrepreneurs carry a reputation of being self-made, uber-confident and highly capable business people. It takes guts, chutzpah and moxie to create something out of nothing – especially when others can’t see around the corners that you can. As a deep subject matter expert in your field, you are the reigning monarch leading your team into battle with great products, great vision and great expectations.

bill-cunninghamYet, great entrepreneurs build a network of support to fill in the gaps – you just can’t be great at everything. When you run into challenges that need some brain power to solve – who are you going to call? Maybe Ghostbusters can help, but more than likely you should rely on the wisdom of a well-formed and functioning board of directors or board of advisors.
So if you have never created, recruited or managed a board – how do you get started? Aileron offers several courses in board creation and management including sessions for board members to learn how to become most effective. Assuming you can’t fit that into your schedule, you should be begin by putting together a list of attributes of ideal board members. Diversity on a board is great – familiarity on a board is not so great. You want to have different perspectives from industry and functional areas to add value to your interactions. Talent that represents finance, marketing, sales, your specific vertical, organizational (people) expertise can be extremely helpful. Recruiting your accountant, attorney and your Uncle Joe may not give you the answers you need to tough questions.

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Back to School Reading

Posted: September 28, 2014 by Bill Cunningham in Culture, Leadership, People, Startup

bill-cunninghamNow that Fall has arrived, it’s time for everyone to go back to school. Here are some recommendations about what you need to study to enhance your entrepreneurial knowledge and skillset.

The Startup Owner’s User Manual written by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf are a must-read for every aspiring entrepreneur. This essential guide complements all of the current “Lean Startup” ideas and gives you a step by step approach to a successful startup. The reading makes sense. The work is hard. The benefits are fantastic.

Stanford University’s Entrepreneurship Corner (E-Corner) hosts a collection of podcasts and videos based on the Draper Fisher Jurvetson’s Thought Leaders Seminar. The seminar is a weekly lecture series on entrepreneurship featuring entrepreneurs, innovators and industry leaders. Stanford students earn credit for attending the series by registering for Management & Science Engineering Course 472. The series is also free and open to the public. If you don’t happen to be in Silicon Valley on Wednesday afternoons, you can get access to all the past speakers through the e-Corner website: http://ecorner.stanford.edu or subscribe to the series via iTunes.

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How do startup founders know when to quit, stick or pivot?

Posted: September 7, 2014 by Bill Cunningham in Leadership, Startup

bill-cunninghamYou’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away, And know when to run

— Kenny Rogers, The Gambler
As a counterpoint to my article on perseverance, here’s another perspective on never giving up. Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners in Menlo Park, CA highlights three choices entrepreneurs have when faced with tough time in their startup in a post from Quora. Here are Jeremy’s thoughts:

Jeremy-LiewPivoting is the easiest of these decisions to make. You pivot when you see some element or subset of your product that is getting way more traction than what you thought was your core use-case.

Sometimes this is because users are focusing on one element of what you do, sometimes they are asking you for a set of features that are different from what you have in mind, sometimes they hack your product to use it for something you didn’t expect, sometimes all the usage falls around a single use-case that is a “corner case” for you.

You want to see this from a lot of users, certainly the plurality, but when you do, you should pivot and gives users what they want, regardless of the product roadmap that you have in mind

Sticking should be the most difficult decision to make. I have assumed repeated failure of the core product, i.e. you’re out of ideas, it isn’t just another feature that is needed, you’ve hired who you need to fill in gaps in your team, and it still isn’t working. (more…)