4 useful websites for an early-stage start-up company + the value of a trademark

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May 10, 2012 by David Miller

I thought I’d share 4 websites that I’ve found very useful from a start-up company point of view,  together with some of my thoughts on trademark protection. I’ve also put details of a Irish marketing expert and guru in the area of intellectual property at the foot of the post.

Excellent tool for helping you capture ideas from the internet in a graphical format

OK, so skitch.com (which has recently been acquired by evernote) is basically an AWESOME screen-grabbing tool. What’s a ‘screen-grab’ you ask? Basically a photo of your computer screen, which you can then annotate, highlight, circle etc. It is brilliant, and helps to improve the connection between visual imagery and words in communicating your message or making whichever point you’re trying to make. It’s particularly good in use in presentations i.e. you take a screen-grab, annotate away on the pop-up skitch screen that appears on your computer (and handheld if you use it on them I believe), and then save as a jpeg before transferring into PowerPoint or whatever. I’ve found it seamless and – perhaps the best praise – I’d be stuck without it. Oh and I’m pretty sure it’s free too.

Excellent online business card too – moo.com

Moo.com is a great example of using the web for a good old fashioned item like the business card. You can choose from a huge range of templates, types of paper/card, you can upload images to your cards (making them as individualistic as you like, particularly great for people in the design industry I’d have thought as you can showcase your portfolio of works on the back of your cards), and they really look as if you can touch them on the screen (i.e. they’re totally realistic, so what you see really is what you get). I’ve used them in 3 iterations of my own card and never been disappointed.

Excellent crowd-sourcing design site (for logos, websites etc) – 99designs.com

I hosted a design competition on this website for a company logo. I had a pretty clear idea in my head of the feel of what I was looking for so I uploaded a couple of my own design ideas, together with a description of the feel that I was looking for  (you can see the finished product at the foot of this post).

On 99designs you choose how much you’re willing to pay for your design, then you either just post up the contest; or you do as I did, which was to spend a couple of hours trawling through the online portfolios of the huge number of professional graphic designers who have successfully competed in the past in other competitions, and then I individually invited them to enter my own contest on the basis that I liked their work and thought that they’d have a good shot. Although this was a big effort (the trawl) and although 99designs didn’t make it easy enough to do the trawl, the upside was significant as I had people putting in designs that were bang on the feel that I was looking for.

Another great tip was to deploy a continuous loop of feedback to the designers (which you can brilliantly do under each design, giving them a star rating together with comments/suggestions). This really upped the quality of the submissions.

The final good tip was to ‘guarantee’ the contest, i.e. I stated that after x days I would guarantee to select a winner. Normally on 99designs, if you don’t like what someone’s done for you, you’re not obliged to select a winner. The upside is you’re not contractually committed. The downside is that there’s less incentive for the designers to push the boat out for you and put in their best effort. Once I guaranteed the contest (about 1/3 of the way through) I saw a big increase in both the quality and number of contestants – and perhaps more importantly it sharpened my own concentration and focus no end in terms of what I was looking for.

When I eventually had my designs narrowed down to my favourite 5, I was then able to share them with selected friends and ask them to rate/comment on them. I was 100% happy with the result.

In the end I had 37 designers producing 242 entries (but bear in mind that there may have been about 50 basic entries, with the balance being tweaks/adjustments to the initial submission, rather than 242 completely different designs)

I guaranteed $495 (which was c.€369 at the time). Now some may question spending that on a logo. Each to their own. However for me, a non-designer, to have the rapt attention of 37 designers listening (mostly) to my feedback with a selection of professionals competing from the USA, India, Australia, the Philippines, India and other countries – well, I consider it good value. It was also important for me in the context of having settled on the name, finding a logo I felt encapsulated the brand, and being able then to move on to intellectual property protection in the form of EU community wide trademark protection.

Trademarks

Doing a free check of your name across all trademarked names in the EU: Office for Harmonisation in Internal Markets in Europe (OHIM)

The OHIM (Office for the Harmonisation of Internal Markets in the EU) site (with a tongue-twister like that is it any wonder the bureaucrats in Europe struggle to communicate their message clearly to the citizens of Europe?… but I digress…) is THE place to do an authoritative check for details of Trademarks, Designs and the Owners and Representatives (who lodge the claims). Basically it’s a great quick resource to check whether your business name has been nabbed by someone else before you, or whether in a potential export market of yours another business has a confusingly similar name to  your business’.

FYI bagging a website domain name which is the same as your limited liability company name DOES NOT equal protection.

You only get EXCLUSIVE use and PROTECTION of that name if it’s got TRADEMARK protection.

Make sure you’ve got a PROTECTABLE and PROTECTED name before you spend shed loads of money marketing under that name.

By PROTECTABLE I mean it’s a word that you’re actually going to be able to ‘protect’. It can’t be too descriptive or general. There’s a bunch of rules around it.

FYI you can protect SMELLS, FEEL, LOOKS, and WORDS (and more).

So why bother to try and get trademark registration? To set your business apart from others (defensive marketing protection) and to shut down competitors attempting to pass themselves off as you with confusingly similar names (aggressive deterrence effect).

You can protect in your own country; or apply for protection across the EU (Community Trade Mark).

So what happens if you don’t register?

A competitor could steal your name, protect it, and then legally require you to remove the name from your business! What?? Yes, even though you’ve had the name, if someone else cheekily trademarks it ahead of you, then it’s considered theirs. The logic most likely being that if you haven’t trademarked your name, then you’re implying that you don’t actually set that much store by its asset value to your business.

I recently met a company who’d traded for 10 years in Ireland under their own name, branched out into the UK, only after a couple of weeks for them to receive a ‘cease and desist letter’ (the standard term for a lawyer’s letter that requires a competitor to ‘cease and desist’ from using the same or a confusingly similar name to theirs). They got legal advice (which was to the effect that their competitor had the trademark on the name and that they were copper-fastened and bullet-proof) and ultimately the Irish business had to spend £100K re-branding the business from top-to-bottom over the next 12 months: ultimately distracting from revenue generation and the bottom line.

Speaking of ‘intellectual property’, you know, those phrases you occasionally see in contracts etc – what the heck’s that all about?

Well by contrast to the PHYSICAL assets of your business – those ‘things’ that you can touch (your desk, your PC, your product line) – the intellectual property is invariably the intangible stuff (the stuff you can’t touch), one of which is of course your business name. If it’s the ‘property’ of the business you probably don’t want others using it without your permission (hey, you could charge them for the please under a licensing arrangement!).

So, if this intellectual property stuff really is an ASSET of your business, why leave it unprotected? Would you leave the office unlocked? Why leave your name unlocked?

Of course there’s a contrary view that there’s a bunch of businesses out there doing great business and serious revenue without the protection of a trademark (say for example their name was considered too generic). To which the answer of course should be: consider what their value would be had they also leveraged the branding, marketing and asset-value intellectual property protection of a trade mark!

If you want to read 10 clear points on Patents and 10 clear points on Trademarks, read this by Irish marketing and intellectual property guru Liam Birkett. He taught me most of what I know in the area.

This is another piece by Liam, also well worth reading, on the RTE website, which is also written in a stimulating and accessible way, and which helps challenge the start-up mindset to appreciate the present and future value of good intellectual property protection that allows for a confident marketing and branding spend that, ultimately, should deliver to the company bottom line.

The author is a Children’s Officer for a large grassroots soccer club, a dispute resolution solicitor by experience, a member of the FAI’s National Disciplinary Panel and the managing director of a web-based start-up company engineering a risk management software solution for voluntary clubs and organisations, currently in Beta testing:

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