If you ever thought of starting a patent software company, I have some good news for you. Unlike the general software markets for, say, antivirus or mp3 software, the legal software market is just not very saturated. A lot of the existing software for patent lawyers is outdated, ridiculously expensive, and frankly, not that good. There is definitely room for better software products and services, especially in the fields like patent prosecution/litigation, portfolio management, and e-discovery. In fact, entire sections of patent practice are just begging for helpful and affordable software, but none or very little exists.
However, starting and running a small software business is hard work. In addition to developing, marketing, and selling the software, you need to be cognizant of some complexities specific to the legal market. When I started ClaimMaster Software, I was a complete business neophyte and had to learn many things the hard way. I therefore thought that it might be helpful if I shared some tips and suggestions based on my experiences from the last year. What follows are four things to consider as you proceed with software and business development.
My story begins a few years ago when I looked into buying software that would help me proofread Office Action responses and patent applications. I could not find anything that would work on responses so I started writing my own code. Eventually, I launched ClaimMaster with a goal of improving patent prosecution experience for all the folks in my field. The response has been surprisingly positive. It turns out that I was not the only person who needed such a product. For instance, I constantly receive emails from practitioners thanking me for developing the software and asking for new features. To me, this is very rewarding.
If you ever thought of developing and selling your software to patent lawyers, these tips should help you when you decide to launch your own product.
1) Choosing the architecture for your product
Once you have an idea for your product, you may be tempted to implement it using the latest and greatest technology. However, before you get too far down that path, I have a few words of caution for you, both with respect to the software deployment and data confidentiality.
First, if you need to integrate your software within the customers’ infrastructures, you may want to tread carefully and not rely on the most recent technologies. As much as patent law firms are in the business of patenting new inventions, their IT systems are often surprisingly out of date. Many follow the old proverb “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which means that some of the firms are still using Office 2000 in the year 2010. Therefore, to maximize appeal of your software to all firms, you will want to make sure that it seamlessly integrates with various legacy products and does not require massive reconfiguration of their existing infrastructures. Accordingly, choosing the latest and greatest platform for you software may not be such a great idea because you will encounter resistance from the firms’ IT departments that do not yet support that technology or do not want to spend time reconfiguring their systems.
Second, you need to be very careful about data confidentiality. Patent lawyers are paranoid about confidentiality and you will meet a lot of resistance if your software or service sends information to the outside world. Take, for example, cloud computing. It is a great concept, but realistically it will take years before lawyers will become comfortable with hosting confidential client information outside their firms because of the concerns about confidentiality, ethics, applicable law, and data privacy. For example, I have seen a number of web-based solutions for authoring patent applications, and while they look nice, I simply do not see many patent law firms using their services in the near future because of the above issues. Therefore, your product will be more appealing now if it does not raise any red flags related to the client data confidentiality.
2) Getting the initial user base
Let’s say you have developed a beta version of your software. How do you now get attorneys to use it? Ideally, the product would sell itself, but this rarely happens. Lawyers are skeptical by nature and patent lawyers are doubly skeptical because of their engineering background. However, having a few initial users who will provide you with an honest feedback is crucial to the overall success of your product. Too many software programs for lawyers feel like something got lost in the translation between the developers and the product audience. You do not want your product to be like that.
You need become the first and the most critical user of your product. Try to incorporate the beta version in your practice. This will give you a chance to test your software in a work environment. You will also get ideas for improvements – if a particular feature objectively helps you in your work, then others will likely find it useful as well. If not, then it may be time to go back to the drawing board.
Once you feel comfortable with the beta version, try to get your patent attorney friends or coworkers to use it. If you want, give a free copy to everyone within your firm. Lawyers are especially reluctant to change their ways and you may not get a lot of users initially, but if the software is good, its reputation will spread by word of mouth and you will soon have more users, both inside and outside the firm. Always ask for feedback and suggestions to improve the software. And if they really like your product, initial users may even provide you with testimonials that you can later use for marketing.
When you are ready to launch consider offering a Free Trial for a period of time, perhaps 14 days. Free trials are common and many who download software from across the web will expect to be able to try it before they buy it. By doing this you remove a critical obstacle. What is there to lose other than some time? I offer a free trial of ClaimMaster, and since I started providing the ability to download an evaluation copy both interest in ClaimMaster and sales have gone up.
3) Consider joining forces with other small companies
As a small start-up, it may make sense to join forces with other small companies working in the same field. First, it is likely that you and some other company are developing complimentary products that could be bundled and sold together. Moreover, by bundling the products, you may save time and money on development and possibly appeal to the broader customer base. For example, if one company develops software for patent authoring software, while the other company has expertise in developing software for proofreading patent documents, it might make sense for both companies to work together to produce a package that lets users draft and then proofread their patent applications. Finally, marketing, advertising and trade shows are very expensive, so sharing costs is great way to save some money in the beginning.
4) Take care of the standard, yet important details
Finally, I may be preaching to the choir, but in addition to developing great software, it is also very important to take care of all the general business-related tasks. Be prepared to allocate a lot of time for this. They say that 80% of work is in the last 20% of the project and, sadly, this is true. For example, you may need to get your employer’s express permission to develop/market the software, file a patent application if you think you got something worth patenting, and incorporate your company. You will further have to spend significant amount of time building your website, figuring out how to manage licensing, developing ads and marketing materials, and promoting the product. All of these activities take up as much or even more time than the actual software development. Depending on your available budget, you may be able to hire a designer or a marketing/sales person to help you. I have primarily relied on myself so far and I do not recommend it. Many of the above activities require special expertise and significant time commitment, so if you can afford it, get help and concentrate on what you do best. But if you decide to be the Jack of All Trades, you can get some reasonably helpful information from reading various small-business guides, such as “Nolo’s Small Business Basics.”
These are just some initial suggestions I had for the folks who are starting out based on my own experiences. If there is sufficient interest, I can delve into more details in the following posts. In any event, if you ever thought “I can do better that this!” while using some overly expensive and barely functional piece of patent software, please go out there and create a better product. We will be all thankful to you.