If you’re focusing on solving tough problems, problems that seem crazy (like predicting the future and what patents will be issued), people may call you crazy. But, if you reach for the stars, metaphorically, eventually you will catch one. Many think lofty goals are unachievable and continue along an uninspired path. That complacency is a road to mediocrity. Sometimes when you reach for the stars, you can’t quite get a hand on them. But in trying you become your better self. So you should never get discouraged.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Franklin.
Thomas Franklin, a senior partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and founder of Triangle IP (“TIP”). Over the years he has worked with numerous Fortune 500 tech companies in crafting their patent strategy. He has built a deep first-hand understanding in the areas of Deep Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Internet Technologies. He is an IAM 300 strategist and has been recognized by Super Lawyers annually since 2014. He also won ‘The Best Lawyers in America’, 2016 Client Choice Award USA. He was also recognized as the best IP Non-Litigator in the Annual Barrister’s Best list 2020. He is a regular speaker and contributor to websites like IPWatchdog, Cloudtweaks, Hackernoon, and many more showcasing his IP expertise.
“I have more success than I ever aspired for. Now, I want to share what I know to help other people succeed. That’s what drives me everyday. That’s the change I want for everyone. And the best piece of advice I have for you — Open your mind to the seemingly ridiculous.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
‘This career path’, I will define as building software to democratize the patent process — the TIP tool by Triangle IP. In our legal practice, we do several things that help companies track and manage their innovation capture. One of them is to create a list of various innovations underlying the products that their innovators have invented. Some clients started tracking those lists on their own and developing their internal process using generic collaboration tools with my guidance. After recreating this effort for many clients, we were surprised at how helpful it was in achieving enterprise goals. This prompted us to build a best-in-class idea manager — a key component of the TIP tool that provides collaborative innovation capture, a pipeline to track the process, and tracking after filing with world-class analytics and AI insights.
As a patent attorney, I help my clients with strategic protection of their key innovations. It has anchored a very successful legal services practice. But not every startup or SME can afford to have a partner at a large firm facilitate their innovation capture & management process. The genesis of Triangle IP was to integrate those insights and best practices into a simple tool to virtually facilitate innovation capture for patenting. What we wanted was to democratize that process with a free tool that required no special training or expertise.
Even today, many enterprises that desperately need IP protection are unaware of the steps required when securing a patent. However, the fact is, if you are not patenting your ideas, you are giving them away. Competitors love naive competitors because they can freely steal their unprotected ideas. Unfortunately many companies, especially SMEs lack the sophistication and determination to protect their ideas. We wanted to change that and help everyone go about protecting their inventions without paying for legal supervision of the process.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I don’t recall a story in particular, however, a lesson from one of my mentors on empathy brought a remarkable change in my career. By understanding the power of empathy it accelerated my track as a rainmaker.
Being empathetic is what has worked for my business. I think as we go through life, we focus on things that can close out the world around us. So my mentor took the time to explain how had a successful business that he sold. The people that bought it ran it into the ground. Subsequently, he bought it back for pennies on the dollar. And the second time around as he was rebuilding his failed company he got involved in rebuilding sales often from disenchanted customers. And this time, he drove sales by being empathetic.
This is what he told me — You can’t sell something unless you internalize your customer’s problems. And if you have a preconceived notion of what that might be, you’re likely wrong. Sometimes what’s motivating the interest isn’t the service or product you’re providing. Sometimes it’s fear, sometimes it’s opportunity, sometimes it’s a hedge against something happening. And sometimes they haven’t even organized their thoughts on the subject. And if you don’t have your ears open you will never know how to see it from their perspective. Try to walk in their shoes as you’re working with your client because otherwise, you’re going to miss the real issues.
Sales is all about understanding the problem and underlying motivations from the perspective of your customer. Frame that concern as an opportunity for your business. And if you cannot figure out what the problem is, you certainly can’t propose the right solution.
When I first heard that advice it really did make a lot of sense to me at the time but then, for the next several years it sank in. Empathy became my starting point when solving client problems. Now, I don’t have a call with a customer or a prospect without trying to think what’s going on in their world. And you know sometimes what’s going on is not exactly tethered to reality but that’s okay. Your customer is entitled to approach it emotionally without a clear understanding of the legal issues. Sometimes there isn’t really even a product or service to be sold in those circumstances. It’s just a little bit of a listening ear with hand holding and reassurance. Nonetheless, those are the moments where you build up your relationship. So when there is the opportunity to provide the product or service that you offer, it’s going to be much more likely to be well received. Having an empathetic approach is what helps you keep customers and make new ones.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
When you’re innovating in a particular space, you’re excited about certain technologies. The pertinent question to ask is are you alone in thinking about that exciting technology or are there others? The answer to that question will affect your patent strategy.
When there is buzz around the same technology, everyone is going to want to file patents. So it becomes a race to the patent office. Hurry!
One of the innovations we are working on is using AI to gather signals from many different sources to figure out what’s hot in the patent space at the moment. This currently is a blind spot because patents don’t publish for 18 months. After that blackout, it’s easy to track trends or data. But the advantage lies in knowing earlier. This technology correlates to other sources that talk about what is going on in the technology world — blogs, technical articles, twitter, web search traffic. This is a great way to gain insight into what innovators are thinking about. And if it comes up as a trend, you have to act quickly. For example, blockchain technology has evolved in waves. The first was in 2016. And then again in 2018 when Bitcoin value popped. Late in 202, when crypto boomed again, there was another blockchain patent wave. Those are the sort of signals the AI we are developing picks up to tell you when delay is especially dangerous. Days or hours matter when there is technology buzz.
A hot area is a really tough place to remain out front because others will invest money to accelerate capture of white space. But the people who get in front of that wave are the people that will reap the biggest patent rewards.
How do you think this might change the world?
Imagine a world where innovation is even faster than it is today. Imagine businesses always being ahead of the curve with research funding matching the hype. With the technology we are developing, what you’re imagining will be reality.
This will become a world where everyone is a visionary or trendsetter, where no one is ever late to a party. The patent party.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Triangle IP took time to develop and is still evolving. But we are hoping that it redefines the TIPping point for the process of innovation. As a patent attorney, you’re usually waiting for the next email or phone call delivering new business. The idea for TIP came from our interactions with our clients. When you keep people thinking of IP, they get into the rhythm of protecting their patents. Usually, people get so busy in their routines, IP can be pushed to the backburner. Until a problem or threat arises and folks ask what’s happening before scrambling to file patents. This is often a competitor copying features, investor diligence, board direction, or a patent suit.
The tipping point or epiphany underlying TIP was that if enterprises can make protecting innovation part of their normal process that innovators follow, more patent ideas are captured. This provides an abundance of things a business could protect instead of being forced to make reactionary choices that can be too late. Patents just don’t happen in a frantic business world without a clear workflow in software to push along the process.
There are many companies that have great technology that is instantly ripped off. It happens with Kickstarter all the time, when campaigns are run for funding. By the time the product is produced with the help of the campaign, there are already knock offs capturing the market. This takes the wind out of a fledgling company’s sails. It would help if a company could have some seed funding to file patents before embarking on a Kickstarter campaign. So by the time it’s done with developing the idea and is manufacturing products, it might even have issued patents because they’ve been fast tracked. That way it staves off the fast followers to capture early first mover profits that are required to build out a start-up with their breakthrough innovation.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Big data. Lots of data. To gather very weak signals and co-relate them to discover the unknown. In the time between now and 18 months hence (when patents will be published and data will be easily available), unorthodox data is what we need for deep learning.
We have an AI backed algorithm in place. And to run it long enough for it to predict successfully, we need many different data sources. The results it produces will be checked against reality a few months later to improve the algorithm more and more over time.
Right now, we don’t know what data is the right data to have. But a learning algorithm that is giving wrong answers is worthless. We are building an algorithm that will be a soothsayer, almost, predicting the future. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but we believe it’s eminently determinable. The algorithms that we developed are already patented. It’s just a matter of building the AI and getting enough data to feed it. We can then provide a really simple identification of an innovation cycle that tells you where you need to fast track your patent filing. For a innovative enterprise, that is invaluable.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I seek out wisdom wherever I can find it. Sometimes, it’s in the most unassuming ways. But your mind must be open to this. We get busy. Some encounters are missed because we might think they might not bestow us wisdom. Just last week, I had several from whom I learnt something even though one might easily ignore such encounters. There’s insight everywhere around us. There are so many people I am thankful for, but your ears have to be open. Every single day there is someone around who has an epiphany if you listen hard enough.
What so many people do is build echo chambers. They let ego or status get in the way by creating a protective bubble around them. And they are starving themselves from that thing that we need the most, which is a bunch of input from different people. I’ve had conversations with people that no one would even talk to and it’s been some of the most mind blowing conversations. I don’t have a particular answer but it’s all around you. If you don’t embrace it, if you don’t draw in those opinions, you will not be able to succeed in a way that somebody with an open mind that embraces different opinions and different ways of thinking can do. That’s why diversity is such a powerful thing as yourself up to cognitive- and neuro-diversity.
I was recently interacting with someone who was really difficult and I said, yeah, this person was really difficult but here’s what I found out from them. The people who are easy to interact with have a way of sheilding you from insight. Yes, it’s pleasant, no one is offended. But this particular individual was blunt in an almost offensive way. Sometimes you need someone to say the emperor has no clothes. Only by having those moments and welcomining different opinions can you encounter those insights. I learn from people all the time. Sometimes it’s a child, sometimes it’s someone who we have a brief encounter with during our day. I had a long conversation with a bus driver that was emptied out by COVID. And that conversation with her had me thinking all day from a different perspective. And if I were to have a list of people who have been influential, I would have a list of five people each week who most would normally walk right past.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Denver was where me and my wife decided we wanted to raise our family. We had met in Southern California but we chose Denver for building my career. Unfortunately, it was a fly-over state when it came to IP. When the patent office would do training or engagement in the community very rarely would they stop here. They’d go down to Silicon Valley or Chicago or the big cities. So a friend of mine was thinking about this issue and asked about why we can’t have our own patent office in Denver. Initially, I thought it was a crazy idea (as did all my colleagues). But we started working on it.
It was almost a decade of persistent effort, with a little luck that led to circumstances and politics aligning. Today, there’s 5 patent offices in the US and Denver has one of them. Probably one of the better ones. And it’s really changed the IP landscape. Every firm wants to have an office in Denver so there’s a lot more opportunity for people. We are no longer a flyover state, we certainly have more engagement from the patent and trademark office and other stakeholders.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
One — Chase the crazy ideas. Complacency is the road to mediocrity.
If you’re focusing on solving tough problems, problems that seem crazy (like predicting the future and what patents will be issued), people may call you crazy. But, if you reach for the stars, metaphorically, eventually you will catch one. Many think lofty goals are unachievable and continue along an uninspired path. That complacency is a road to mediocrity. Sometimes when you reach for the stars, you can’t quite get a hand on them. But in trying you become your better self. So you should never get discouraged. More than a few times in my career, people have told me “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!” I was openly mocked when I started this effort to expand the patent office outside DC. I was scoffed at, laughed at by my partners. What do you know? Denver has a patent office now. It took me 10 years of trying through 2 administrations, a lot of trips to DC, with countless meetings with politicians, But what do you know? We have a patent office in Denver. People thought it was absolutely crazy because the US always had a single patent office. But the stars aligned and only by reaching for them could it happen.
Two — Seek out things that are unpredictable.
Embrace change. As humans, we fall into patterns and routines. But that path has little to inspire more. Once it’s gotten routine, you’re on the way to being replaced by something, someone or even a machine. So seek out those things that are unpredictable and chaotic to figure out. By seeking out those challenges, you will find that you are doing much more valuable work. I went from legal services to developing software. People thought it was crazy. But I have always been proactive with my clients in looking for more ways to engage them in the patent process. With deep learning and AI, there are many answers in the data that even the best patent attorney cannot provide. My current passion is democratizing that knowledge through inexpensive software.
Three — Show up. Swing that pick to strike gold.
This was a piece of advice that I got early in my career. Half the job was just showing up for work. So many people just don’t show up engaged, ready to go, thinking about their clients’ problems and how to make a difference. They get complacent. Showing up for work day in and day out, working hard, relentlessly, pursuing your profession is how you get things done. It can be frustrating because it doesn’t happen fast. When you’re young, you want things to happen quickly, you want an amazing career and you want it now. It doesn’t often happen on your timeline. What you need to do is show up for work and swing that pick and one day you will hit gold. But if you do not swing that pick, you will never strike it rich. Many people feel it’s hard to find a pick and swing it. So they just sit around thinking about gold landing in their laps. But, it never does. You have to get out there, you have to swing that pick. Only by showing up to work, sincerely engaging in what you do best are you going to get that golden windfall of wealth. You don’t have to be the smartest person on earth. You don’t have to be incredibly lucky. If you’re working in a profession where success is possible, if you’re working hard, you are much more likely to enjoy that success. If you’re in a profession that has less opportunity, it may be tougher, but working diligently at something you love doing is a path that finds rewards. Success and affluence have this tendency to make one complacent very quickly. In the US, we have an epidemic of affluenza so we forget to focus on the things that matter. If you get caught up in those distractions your thoughts and passion will be elsewhere such that you’re not showing up to work and you’re not swinging that pick.
Four — Build up relationships
Relationships are the things that transcend the many jobs and other passions you pursue on your path to career success. It’s tough when you’re really busy. Today, I worked on getting a couple of baseball tickets for a contact. This guy, he’d done me a favor by referring me to his best client. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a call from that prospective client this time. But I still found those baseball tickets because he’s working at a company from where he can influence work to come my way. He did me a favor and I reciprocated with a favor of my own. It took me 20 minutes to figure out which tickets he wanted and how to get the tickets to him. I had a busy day, and it took a bit for me to find the time to figure this out. But I did.
Those little favours, the little thoughtful interactions you have with folks nurtures your network. What happens more often than not is you focus on other things, you’re working really hard in your profession to become a partner, let’s say. When you do, you reach out to contacts you haven’t spoken to in years and their reaction is always — where have you been? So keep that network of people you know alive. When someone does you a favor, always reciprocate. You never know what can happen. It’s a small world . . . a very very small world in your chosen profession. The people that help you out, you help them out. And sometimes nothing comes out of it, but other times, you do the smallest act of kindness, it leads to your biggest business opportunity. So invest in your network, sincerely engage in it.
The thing is, you never really have time to do someone a favor. But when you do, you will benefit. That’s certainty, that’s the truth.
Five — Sincerity
Be sincere and do things for the right reasons. Do something for your client because it’s good for them, not because it’s good for you. You’re posed with certain difficult situations sometimes. Right now, we have a client, who we gave some bad advice to — an error of judgment. They would probably never know or uncover it. But we probably spent 100,000 dollars in effort that didn’t really need to be done. I spoke to a couple of my colleagues about what to do. One said, just don’t tell them. The other one said you tell them right away and tell them you are going to reverse those invoices. And as difficult as that might be, you’re going to end up with a stronger relationship. We are going to own the error and refund them appropriately.
So be sincere and adopt your customers’ problems as your own. This particular client has had some tough budgeting issues. So imagine how much relief it will be for them, when I tell them that we have decided to reverse those charges. They’re going to be super happy because it helps them with the budget. They may be mad about us making a mistake but at the end of the day, it nurtures a very long term relationship and they will remember that you helped them out.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement would be to get business schools to focus more on intellectual property. Much of the curriculum today is about tangible assets, but in the information age, the knowledge economy has its underpinnings in intellectual property. Yet, most business schools are preparing executives for the industrial revolution. I would like to change that attitude to focus curricula toward gathering and protecting intellectual capital through use of IP. Education and the way to push business to evolve with the times. And that, I think, will bring a great amount of wealth creation to enterprise.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I reject your reality and insert my own.”
I heard it on Mythbusters — a show about Hollywood techies who use their stun making talent to dispel urban legends and other misperceptions. Most of us live in a cage of our own making. We might have a self imposed health issue, stuck in a job we don’t like, be in a bad relationship or have a bad lifestyle. I was prediabetic. So, I shed 50 pounds by changing my lifestyle to avoid an ever escalating number of prescriptions to maintain my health. I rejected the cage I found myself in and inserted my own reality. Think of what you want to be and just make it happen. Most things are within our power. When the pandemic first hit us, most of us thought it to be the end of the world. I chose to reject that reality. I found a way to get into one of the vaccine trials. And once I was fully vaccinated, I chose to travel the world. It proved to be the best strategy. Airfares couldn’t be cheaper, hotels were offering discounts and I could work from anywhere. There are some situations that are impossible. But more often than not there is a way out of that box. The secret is that you have to want to find a way out of your cage.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Everybody knows IP is important, but find it bewildering. So very few people fully leverage it despite knowing it is necessary for success. So what if you had a way that everyone could understand the patent process in your organization? You would have more engagement to achieve your patent goals.
A few decades ago, the stock market was so difficult to engage in. You were forced to a broker and say, I want to invest in stock or I need some advice. It was also a very confusing process that only licensed specialists could engage with despite great demand to invest in the stock market. Today, you can download an app and can trade stocks yourself in ten minutes. What’s happened is that there’s been a huge democratization. It’s something we all knew that we had to save for the future using the stock market. We knew we needed to invest in the stock market. The way I think about it is there’s kind of this epiphany like with AOL getting everyone online. The Internet was incomprehensible when I was coming out of college outside of a few super geeks like me. I remember a few of us started a side project to get one of the first internet connections outside of a university or lab in the early nineties. For the first time, my colleague bragged about sending an email when our email server connected periodically and was downloading long enough to see a response a couple minutes later. This was in a world that was still impressed with the fax machine. A few years after this, AOL made the Internet so simple and ubiquitous that Grandma could send email too. Before AOL, at most 5% of people could figure out how to get ont Internet. But by putting CDs everywhere, and having a very friendly interface, AOL brought it to the masses.
We see this explosion of adoption revolutionizing many industries — the internet, the stock market, smartphones, etc. So I think democratising this thing that everybody wants and everybody knows they need in business — patents is just around the corner, It’s the sort of thing where we could see patent engagement grow ten or twenty fold to let any innovator protect their patents without the difficulty there is today. Imagine a teenager downloading an app and with no training having their innovation patented.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomfranklin/
Twitter — https://twitter.com/TD_Franklin
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.