Know your niche. Our product is built around a very specific user and application, so you could say that we began with a niche already in mind. Even then, we found that a lot of work was needed to get to understand the concerns of all of the players involved through the buying cycle and afterwards as users. Investing in these relationships isn’t always easy, but it was one of the best things we did.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing William Morriss.
William Morriss has spent the last fifteen years helping clients, from startups to Fortune 500 companies navigate complex issues surrounding law and technology and obtain protection for their inventions. He is a passionate advocate for the value of patents in business, having seen the impact in the success of his clients and his own work as an entrepreneur. William is Senior Technology Advisor at IP Toolworks, a company which he founded with the goal of helping attorneys respond to rejections from the USPTO more effectively by leveraging a wealth of publicly available but previously inaccessible information.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to be some kind of lawyer. It just seemed to fit me. I also loved programming and got my undergraduate degree in computer science. I graduated in 2002, right after the tech bubble burst, so going into patent law, rather than pursuing work as a developer, seemed like a clear way to go. As far as founding a legal tech company, IP Toolworks, that is something that came out of my experience being a patent attorney, and observing the kinds of pain points I and my colleagues were facing. I was inspired to use the problem solving skills I had developed as a programmer to address the inefficiencies I saw in how people interacted with the patent office in a different way.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
At the moment, we are working on an NLP (Natural Language Processing) based system to better understand both the kinds of arguments the government relies on when rejecting patent applications and the specific types of arguments and doctrines attorneys cite when they negotiate to get patents allowed.
As it stands, the process of getting a patent is highly technical and complex, which can prove particularly prohibitive for smaller inventors who stand to benefit most from protection. This is because patent attorneys must go through college to get a technical degree, before they go to law school. Then, in order to be any good, they have to go through years of experiential learning. The cost of doing all this is of course tremendous. It means that a law firm has to hire someone who is simultaneously a lawyer, a technologist, and an experienced negotiator. By streamlining this process using natural language processing and artificial intelligence, I believe we can significantly reduce the cost of protecting innovation. This, in turn, can make it much easier for people to bring their technologies to market, get investments and realize these new technologies.
How do you think this might change the world?
Increasing access to technical know-how through AI that would ordinarily take human intelligence years to develop, is revolutionary, especially for people hungry to innovate and make a difference. It can help eliminate some barriers to access for inventors and reduce constraints on attorneys, so that someone with less experience, or who happens to be working at a small firm can be confident that what they are preparing is of the same caliber as that of top tier performers.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
There were two experiences in my professional career that inspired me to build this software. One was discovering just how hard it was to convey information on patent prosecution to new attorneys I was training. The other was something I could describe as a happy accident that led me to truly appreciate the value of all this knowledge contained in historical patent prosecution documents, that is typically locked away:
This second discovery goes back to a time when I was working on a litigation case. As part of the litigation process, attorneys are responsible for reading through all the negotiations on the patent that’s being litigated. One of the arguments that the patent attorney in this case had made happened to be one I had never heard before. I thought it was a really good argument, so I made a note of it, and subsequently used it in my own practice. A little later one of my colleagues asked if I had an argument to accomplish a particular objective, and I did; it just so happened that it was the same argument that I had read in that litigation.
It made me realize just how much knowledge is out there that would normally be beyond the scope of my own experience and that of my immediate network. The Arguminer software changes that; instead of discovering new arguments by luck, you are able to use our tool to search for them in a comprehensive, systematic way.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
To begin with, I think people need to be aware of it. Beyond that, we have to address the fact that there is a basic human reluctance towards change, and that this is often more entrenched in institutions like law firms that are the primary purchasers of our software. We tend to think of technology law as on the cutting edge, but much of law is, after all, about finding ways of accounting for new developments within codified systems that are already established. To get into the system, in our case, tends to require working through bureaucratic layers and a certain amount of patience while our potential users build new habits and develop trust that innovations like ours can enhance their practice, rather than posing a threat to what they are already doing that is working.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We recently began working with a marketing agency. Our campaigns with them have focused on providing actionable content that can help patent lawyers level-up their prosecution practice. So far, we are seeing some good results. It is exciting to finally transition to more of an in-bound model where we have people coming to us, asking for product demos, rather than us reaching out to them.
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 have been fortunate to have had access to some incredible training and mentorship opportunities while we were getting IP Toolworks off the ground. We began by working through business plan competitions and launch programs at Xavier University and the University of Dayton, where we received a solid education in the ingredients needed to start a business. People within my network, and within the startup community here in Cincinnati, many of whom I help with patents for their companies or portfolios, have been incredibly generous in sharing their time and experience with me when it was my turn to launch.
Beyond this, I am grateful to my partner and cofounder, Yvonne [Morriss]. The company wouldn’t exist without her. Not only was she the one responsible for creating the commercial framework and doing a great deal of the legwork to take us from a product to a business, but her commitment and vision is the reason we exist today. We went through some dark times just before we got our first signed contracts with some major law firms, when I was about ready to pull the plug. Her confidence in the technology, and in the value of what we are trying to achieve, is what pulled us through.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do pro bono work both as an injury attorney, and in assisting companies with intellectual property and technology policies. I’ve helped a company that does research for a particular orphan disease with their research agreements. I’ve helped nonprofits implement technology policies that allow them to structure how they provide access to basic human needs like cell phones.
As an attorney, I think of my role as a kind of enabler. By sharing the knowledge and expertise that I have amassed through my training and years of practice, I am in a position to enable others to improve the world through their own efforts. These are people who already are doing tremendous things, but who, without this kind of support, might otherwise have their impact limited by obstacles they encounter. This is not so different from what our software does. It provides access to knowledge that can enable other people to more effectively protect, and commercialize valuable innovations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.
- The difference between someone telling you they would buy your product, and them actually paying money for it is night and day. Actually many people told me this before I started, but it is the kind of thing you can’t fully appreciate until you have spent all of this time developing the tech and building validation pre-launch, only to find that when it’s time to actually commercialize, you’ve hit a wall.
- Some things take time. We happen to be in an industry with a very long buying cycle. The time from initial engagement to closing our first sale was well over a year. There is so much emphasis on failing fast. I completely get the wisdom behind not wanting to pour more and more resources into a sinking ship, particularly when big investment is involved. For us, we took an alternative approach, which gave us the chance to make it to the finish line. Long and lean can be a viable model too.
- Be very sure you have your video conferencing platform in good order. We botched a couple promising calls early on due to technical issues with our conferencing platform, which I remember being hugely disappointing at the time. We bounced around to a few different platforms after that, and ended up on the free tier of Zoom, since their performance was so solid, and we were trying to run lean. The only downside was that they cut you off after forty minutes. Our typical demo runs thirty minutes, so this seemed fine. Then one day, we were on a call that wasn’t wrapping up when we expected. My co-founder was on the other end entering our credit card details with minutes to spare. I can’t believe it actually worked! We were so fortunate that it did, as they turned out to become one of our best customers.
- Marketing can be transformative. As a technologist, I can have a groundbreaking idea and go ahead and build it, but the tech won’t be able to achieve what it is meant to, if it is not marketed and promoted. This is something I wish I had appreciated earlier in our own ramping up process, as I think it would have generated more positive momentum. The last six months working with our marketing agency, Concurate, has shifted our model in a very positive direction. Now we have people saying, “Hey, we want this. We want to demo.” They’re reaching out to me, which means they are already engaged. That sets the stage for better success.
- Know your niche. Our product is built around a very specific user and application, so you could say that we began with a niche already in mind. Even then, we found that a lot of work was needed to get to understand the concerns of all of the players involved through the buying cycle and afterwards as users. Investing in these relationships isn’t always easy, but it was one of the best things we did.
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. 🙂
It would be a movement to deemphasize and distribute power and resources away from the so-called leaders of things. I’m one of two cofounders of IP Toolworks, but as the inventor of our core technology I am the one who tends to be presented as the face of our company. My industry experience and technical background were certainly essential, but so too were the contributions of my cofounder, which I mentioned earlier, as were efforts of our exceptionally talented developers at GreyB. The cult of genius is an idea that came about in the nineteenth century. There is something very romantic about this way of thinking, but it is problematic, in that it disproportionately rewards and valorizes certain kinds of contributions over others, which I don’t believe is particularly healthy for society. More than that, it is unrealistic, in that it doesn’t reflect the kinds of work that go on behind the scenes to support great or innovative things actually getting done.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never play to win a pawn while your development is yet unfinished.”
- Aron Nimzowitsch
Simply put, you must first prepare, then execute. In chess, impulsive or inexperienced players are tempted to go after their opponent’s pawns before they have finished readying their own pieces on the board. Certainly these little pieces on the frontlines are nice to have, but they can cost you.
When we first launched we spent some resources going after what we thought looked like easy sales with small firms. The appointments were easy to book, but the sales consistently failed to materialize. We stopped and went back to the drawing board, where we discovered that focusing on larger prospects actually resulted in a more solid product-market fit. In life, as in chess, development means taking the time to move out your pieces in the right order so that you can maneuver properly. When the time is right, you will be in a much stronger position to attack and win.
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 🙂
Whether it takes the form of a major disruptor or an incremental improvement, innovation is the gold standard that successful ventures are built upon. Yet without patents to protect that innovation, companies are in danger of losing that edge. So much work goes into due diligence and mentoring to foster the best possible teams to develop and commercialize using data and insight drawn from past experience. Yet, when it comes to negotiating with the government to obtain the patent, matters are handed off to an attorney and it’s put in a black box. We open that black box, giving patent seekers the best possible chances of success based on what has worked before .
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn — William Morriss
YouTube — IP Toolworks
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.