To a certain extent, invention and disclosure are two sides of the startup enterprise: the former is about coming up with an idea, developing it as a product, and engineering it properly; the latter has to do with communicating internally and externally in order to turn the inventor’s intellectual idea into something useful for 3rd party customers.
There are of course very specific, legal definitions of “invention” and “disclosure” as it relates to the requirements of recognizing and protecting intellectual property. I searched through some of the various Invention, Proprietary Rights and Non Disclosure Agreements that have landed in my inbox over the years and came across the following two clauses:
- INVENTIONS “Inventions” means all data, discoveries, designs, developments, formulae, ideas, improvements, inventions, know-how, processes, programs, databases, trade secrets and techniques, whether or not patentable or registerable under copyright, trademark or similar statutes, and all designs, trademarks and copyrightable works made or conceived or reduced to practice or learned, either alone or jointly with others, during employment which: (i) are related to or useful in the business of the Company or to the Company’s actual or demonstrably anticipated research, design, development, financing, manufacturing, licensing, distribution or marketing activity; or (ii) result from tasks assigned by the Company; or (iii) result from the use of premises or equipment owned, leased or contracted for by the Company.
- DISCLOSURE: Confidential Information. In the course of providing the Services, I may learn of, or have disclosed to me, various “Confidential Information”. Confidential Information is any information designated or labeled as ‘confidential’ or ‘proprietary’ or which is of the type one would reasonably expect a business to maintain in confidence. Confidential Information includes, for example, technical information such as know-how, formulae, computer software, logic design, schematics, and manufacturing processes; business information such as information about costs, prices, profits, markets, sales, customers, and vendors; personnel information; and information relating to innovative activities, such as inventions, research projects, and plans for future development. Confidential Information includes confidential or proprietary information of a third party to which Company owes a duty of confidentiality or non-use and may also include Inventions (as defined below). Although certain information or technology may be generally known in the relevant industry, the fact that Company uses it, and how Company uses it, may not be known, and is therefore Confidential Information.
In the cases above, “invention” and “disclosure” are being used in protectionist terms; but the same vocabulary can be turned into something more expressive, as befits the creative process of a startup: disclosure becomes something to celebrate, not guard against.
Startups invent, and then they disclose. They produce product, and then they market it. In years past, one could argue, companies refrained from disclosing their core, proprietary, secret inventions, for fear of enabling competition: Coke never shared its recipes; Jim Simons of Renaissance Capital never published his quantitative trading models; and Google never exposed its search algorithms.
All that changes now in the attention economy, where the pursuit of social influence drives people to expose ever more information about themselves; and companies are forced to respond by disclosing their heretofore “private” inventions publicly via APIs and other forms of developer outreach.
The rule used to be companies whose secret aspirations were hidden behind their “stealth mode” welcome signs, and the exception were companies that were chatty about their plans. Now it has become reversed. The rule are now companies that telegraph their ambitions so as to make developers feel comfortable enough to develop software on top of the companies’ platforms; the exception are now companies that won’t say what they are working on. When it comes to startups, stealth is the new transparency. Transparency is the new stealth.”
Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google (Android) are all rushing to expose their intentions as quickly as they become conscious of them. One could argue that we are coming to the point where disclosure precedes invention. What then?
In the case of stickybits, Billy Chasen and I met for a Pastrami sandwich at New York’s 2nd Ave Deli in New York last November. Afterwards we strolled through the East Village and talked about what was on the technology horizon. We were both fascinated by FourSquare and the possibilities inherent of Augmented Reality. We talked about being able to look through the lens of a Smart Phone and see what things looked like in the past: the “ghost filter” that enabled one to hover over a building and see pictures of what it looked like in the past.
Billy spoke of his attempts at trying to figure out how to add virtual graffiti to a physical wall. He was annoyed by the inaccuracy of GPS latitude/longitude resolution. He came up with an idea that might solve these limitations, and suggested that it might also address some of the location based opportunities we were imagining. He was quiet about it, and made me promise to keep it secret before he shared it with me.
I said ok.
As he whispered in my ear, I couldn’t help but feel like Benjamin in the Graduate:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Except Billy didn’t say “plastics.”
He said… stickers.
“Stickers?” I asked.
“Yup, stickers with bar codes that could be put on things and then scanned by an iPhone.”
My first reaction was the disgust of a capitalist when confronted by the poor idealism of an artist
“But stickers are so… grounded in the analog world… and the best businesses are those that scale with effortlessness of digital data.”
I stepped back, thought laterally, and grokked the meme of connecting bits to atoms.
Small lightbulbs started to go off. At first it was contained to a niche art project of leaving a sticker on a lamp post, scanning it, and recording a video memory. So that somebody else could walk by that lamp post days later, scan the sticker, and watch the trace memory of what somebody else left behind. We then brainstormed about how stickers could be placed on tables inside of venues and “claimed,” as a more granular check in within a FourSquare venue.
Soon thereafter, this fleeting initial idea developed the solid inevitability of a startup that was meant to be: first came the vague concept of attaching stickers with unique bar codes to things that could be scanned; then came the requirement to support iPhone, Android, Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare; then the name, stickybits; we quickly realized that users should also be able to print codes at home, and that existing bar codes on any consumer package good or mass market commodity could be augmented as well; and finally we came up with the compelling user experience of notifying users when their codes have been scanned by others- threaded conversations around physical objects
Billy and I divvied up our respective areas of responsibility: he would orchestrate the engineering instruments while I would manage the business ones. We would collaborate around product development and creative design. Together, the tasks proliferated: devs in SF, LA and NY worked on mobile apps, while our SF-based designer created the look and feel of the stickers and of the matchbook design that would house them; our IP attorney in Palo Also filed a provisional patent, while our trademark lawyer in NY made sure that “stickybits” and “tag my world” were registered; we closed our seed financing from Polaris and Mitch Kapor weeks after we filed the docs to incorporate the company in the first place.
It reminded me of one of those flash mobs that arrive at an empty plot of land, divide up all the different tasks of constructing a house, and 24 hours later the house is finished.
This is the sublime joy of starting a new company, from its invention to its disclosure. From the moment the first note is sounded, to the pause following its last note that directly precedes (one hopes) applause. Today, with so many layers of social, mobile and location-based technologies available on demand, the time frame between coming up with a new social media business concept and distributing its product to consumers can be measured in months if not weeks. In the case of stickybits, this journey cost us approximately $100,000 and took about 100 days: from a brainstorm session over Pastrami at the 2nd Avenue Deli to a great set of reviews and tweets at launch.
The ink is still too damp on the stickybits story to predict whether it will be a breakout success, a long grind towards goodness, or a failure. Still, this fast journey from invention to disclosure has been a deeply satisfying startup experience so far.
Thanks for taking part in this journey.