Apr 262007

Silly, Silly Patent Nonsense

Silly, Silly Patent Nonsense

Some news floated around the email marketing world yesterday that is potentially disturbing and destructive but highlights some lunacy at the same time.  I hope I’m getting enough of the details right here (and quite frankly that isn’t a joke, which it feels like).

Tom DiStefano of Boca-based PerfectWeb Technologies is suing direct marketing behemoth InfoUSA for patent infringement of a business process patent for bulk email distribution that he received in 2003.

I will first issue my disclaimers that I’m not a patent lawyer (nor do I even play one on TV) and that I have only quickly read both the legal complaint and the patent.  But my general take on this is that it’s more silly than anything else — but has the potential to be destructive at the same time.

Silly reason #1.  I’d like to go patent the process of blowing my nose with facial tissue predominantly using my left hand after a sneeze — will you pay me a royalty every time you do that, please?  That’s a short way of saying that I am increasingly finding that the patent system is deeply flawed, or at least very ill-suited to the way technology and Internet innovation work today.  For centuries, patents have been put in place to provide inventors adequate incentive to invest in innovation.  That made sense in a world where innovation was expensive.  It took a long time and a lot of capital to invent, say, the cotton gin or the steam engine.  It takes a long time and a lot of capital to invent a new life-saving drug.  But Internet-oriented business process patents are just silly.  It can take a guy with a piece of paper a few minutes to sketch out a business process for some niche part of the Internet ecosystem.  No real time, no real capital.  And worst of all, it’s generally easy to “design around.”  Disclaimers and all, this seems to be just such a patent.

Silly reason #2.  The patent was issued in 2003.  Really?  I’m not sure when the patent holder claims he invented the bulk email distribution process, but unless it was in the early 90s before the likes of Mercury Mail, First Virtual, Email Publishing, etc., then it’s highly likely to be “non-novel,” “obvious,” and conflicting with lots of “prior art.”

Silly reason #3.  Why wait four years to prosecute a patent that the inventor believes has been violated so obviously by so many (hundreds, maybe thousands) companies for so many years?  I don’t quite get that.

I’m not exactly seeing the David vs. Goliath here.

So here we go.  It will likely take months and millions before this thing gets resolved.  If our legal system doesn’t come through as it should, or worse, if InfoUSA punts and settles, this is going to cause big problems for many, many companies in the industry.

I hope our friends at InfoUSA are happy to dig in and fight to have the patent invalidated, although that’s expensive and time consuming.  And assuming that the patent holder is likely to go on a rampage of legal complaints against every other player in the industry — someone should tell Vin Gupta that we can all band together to fight this silliness.  We’re happy to help here at Return Path.

Apr 172007

These Things Do Take Lots of Care and Feeding

These Things Do Take Lots of Care and Feeding

Pete Blackshaw wrote a really thoughtful piece in ClickZ today entitled “Ten Reasons Why I Should Stop Blogging.”  It’s a good read if you’re a middle of the road blogger…or particularly if you’re thinking about starting a new blog.

Apr 152007

Calling for the Boss’s Head

Calling for the Boss’s Head

Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness on my part, but I feel like our culture has really turned up the time-to-fire-the-boss-o-meter to a new level of late.  What is going on that has caused the media and vocal people among us feel this thirst for public lynchings over a single incident?  The list isn’t small — just in recent weeks or months, you have Rumsfeld, Dunn (HP), Gonzales, Imus, Wolfowitz, and even last week, Snyder (Vonage).  And I’m sure there are a dozen others, both corporate and political, that I’m not dredging up mentally here on a Sunday night.

Now I’m all for accountability, believe me, but sometimes it doesn’t help an organization for someone to resign at the top over a single incident.  Jarvis says it best when he says that he would have fired Imus a long time ago because he’s boring and because he’s always been a racist, not because of a few choice words last week.  Should chronic poor performers be dismissed regardless of level?  Absolutely.  Should a leader be forced to step down just to make a point?  I’m much less certain.  In some ways, to carry Jarvis’s theme forward, that kind of dismissal is just a sign to me of lackadaisical oversight along the way, finally coming to a head.

I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that in many cases, a flash dismissal of another otherwise competent leader can pretty bad and traumatic for the underlying organization (be it a company or country).  Consider the alternative — an honest apology, some kind of retribution, and a clear and conspicuous post-mortem — that leaves the ship with its captain and sends the message to the troops that honest mistakes are tolerated as long as they’re not repeated and amends are made.

This in no way is meant to defend the actions of any specifics of the above list.  For many of them, their actions may have prompted an unrecoverable crisis of confidence.  But for my part, I’d rather see regular accountability and transparency, not just at the peaks and troughs.

Apr 082007

Highs and Lows, Part II

Highs and Lows, Part II

A couple years ago, I wrote about the Highs and Lows of entrepreneurship, and how you didn’t just have to steel yourself mentally for a roller coaster of highs and lows, but that you had to really prepare for the whiplash of having the highs and lows hit you at the same time.

My sequel to the original post was inspired by some conversations with my colleague George Bilbrey this week.  It used to be that when the high/low whiplash occurred, while I probably shared either the high or the low with someone in the company, it was unlikely that I shared both.  So other individuals might see a high or a low, de rigeur for working at a startup, but they wouldn’t see both together.

But that’s not the case any longer.  One thing I’ve now noticed that happens as the company grows — we’re up to something like 130 people now — is that we have a big enough business, and enough of our senior people run large enough pieces of it, that I’m not alone in the highs and lows any more.   

This change is, of course, both good news and bad news.  The good news is that it’s always nice to share the burden of these things with other trusted people on the team.  The bad news, of course, is that whiplash isn’t fun, so now part of my job has to be managing it when it happens to others — not so much senior people on the team, but clearly, once the high/low combo is clear to a couple people, it’s likely clear to an even broader audience.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship