15 January 2009

The Downturn may be the Best Time to commercialize your Invention

Since October I have been making the rounds of the Northern inventors' clubs with my presentation, "The Coming Economic Downturn: How it will affect Inventors and what they can do". My message is necessarily gloomy but I try to finish on a high note that an economic downturn is often the best time to start a business. There are a number of reasons for this. Costs are low. Governments tend to prime pumps. At a time when most businesses are shedding labour rather than recruiting most entrepreneurs have much less to lose.

That message is usually received scepticlly so I was heartened considerably by Sanjiv Buttoo's feature on the BBC website "Business brains urged to take the plunge". The article features an interview with Ajaz Ahmed who started Freeserve in 1998. When the service was launched, most homes in the UK connected to the Internet through an 0845 number for which they were charge local calls on top of an annual or monthly subscription to their Internet service provider. The idea behind Freeserve was to take a share of the charge for the telephone call rather than charge a subscription. This simply proposition proved extremely popular with the result that Freeserve became the biggest ISP in Britain. Its growth attracted the attention of the French giant Wanadoo which is a subsidiary of the French national telephone company.   Freeserve merged with Wanadoo giving Ajaz  a very substantial share of the merged company.

The reason I happen to know all this is that Ajaz is a local lad and he is involved with a number of institutions with which I am also interested.   There include the Media Centre where our chambers are based and the University with which we have worked. The article begins with the words:
"Budding entrepreneurs should take advantage of the current economic downturn and take the plunge, a self-made millionaire from West Yorkshire is urging."
"Exactly the message I have been putting about in my presentation," I thought to myself. "If the inventors won't take it from me maybe they will take it from someone who has actually made his fortune and at a fairly young age."  

The articles continues with the following admonition from Ajaz that despite the downturn in the economy, now is the time make money
"You can negotiate a good deal on renting a shop or unit, hiring staff, advertising or even buying cheaper raw materials 
Now is the time to start up with minimal costs, but you need to have that idea or you're wasting your time."
Exactly! The article continued with some examples of people in and around Huddersfield who were actually doing this. Mohammed Ramzan who is also in the Media Centre and even more impressively a couple of schoolboys from Elland who seem to making serious money from publishing their own magazine.

If any reader wants to take not my advice but Amjad's he or she will get a lot of help. Not just from me but from the patent and trade mark agents, solicitors, accountants, marketers, product designers and other experts on my IP Yorkshire panel if they happen to live in Yorkshire.   You can access their expertise in many ways, through the Leeds and Sheffield inventors clubs and the clinics in Barrnsley, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Leeds and Rotherham

If you don't live in Yorkshire, don't worry. I am setting up similar networks in other regions starting with the North West so we shall soon be able to help you wherever you live. Ajaz emailed me yesterday when I said I liked his sentiments: 
"in all this doom and gloom there are opportunities for the brave one, lets hope we see success stories emerging from this sad period."
Let's make sure that happens.

14 January 2009

A Very Sad Tale Indeed: Forrester Ketley & Co v Brent

In Forrester Ketley & Co v Brent [2008] EWHC 3150 (Ch) (19 Dec 2008) Mr. Justice Morgan had to deal with no less than 53 applications for permission to litigate in all sorts of matters including petitions for his bankruptcy and charging orders over his home. 

The reason the applicant needed permission to litigate is that he had been subject to a series of civil restraint orders that required him to apply for permission to the court before going to law. Those orders had been imposed because he had attempted in previous proceedings to join the Crown, the Department for Constitutional Affairs (as the Ministry of Justice was then called), the Lord Chancellor, various judges, and the entire partnership of his opponent's solicitors and had embarked on satellite litigation seeking criminal sanctions against the High Court, the Court of Appeal, various members of the Court of Appeal, and the Health and Safety Executive. He had also tried to sue the UK government, the other side's solicitors and PAMIA in the European Court of Human Rights. All this derived from a claim in 1994 for fees of £4,400 by a firm of patent attorneys and a counterclaim of £5,000 for alleged overpayment and negligence which spawned 100 pages of pleadings by the time it was struck out by the Patents Court in 2003.

This exceedingly sad case would seem incredible to most folk but it is sadly believable to anyone who has ever worked with private inventors. The brilliance of the bright idea and the lure of riches beyond the dreams of Croesus beguile to the extent that some become obsessed with their invention and a few even unhinged. Charles Dickens knew of this tendency and wrote about it in his novels and short stories.  The conditions seems to begin with unfounded optimism: "I've checked round B & Q and can find nothing like it on their shelves" or "sales of trundle humpers amounted to umpteen billion pounds last year and I only have to sell 1% to make so many millions."

In the first few pages of "A Better Mousetrap, The Business of Invention"  Peter Bissell and Graham Barker warn that the vast majority of patents are never worked, that most of those that are do little more than cover their costs and only a tiny percentage of the rest ever make serious money.