When Winning Equals Losing

When you represent startups, your successful clients tend to go away.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 12/2/2016; Medium; publisher: GiantPeople.

2009-02-04, Cambridge MA. Boston skyline as seen from MIT. Copyright 2009 GiantPeople LLC, all rights reserved.
2009-02-04, Cambridge MA. Boston skyline as seen from MIT. Copyright 2009 GiantPeople LLC, all rights reserved.

Clocktower Law, the Boston patent and trademark law firm I founded 15+ years ago, primarily represents startups. What’s great about representing cool companies is that some of those companies have successful exits. What’s not so great is that we tend to lose clients after their successful exits.

After 15+ years of representing startups, I have gotten used to losing our largest client. It has happened before, it will happen again. But getting used to it doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Kind of like dealing with winters in New England (note the dude riding his bike in the above photo).

And just like there are winters when it snows less, there are times when we don’t lose the client after its exit. But both cases are the exception to the rule.

When our startup clients get acquired or IPO, they tend to replace “SmallLaw” (oh how I dislike that term) Clocktower Law with some “BigLaw” (ditto) law firm. But as it says on my blog:

“There are good and bad lawyers at big and small law firms. We like to think that we are good lawyers at a small law firm.”

The founding principles of my firm are (1) give the advice you would want if it were your company, (2) always tell the truth, and (3) just be yourself.

Having worked in the startup world myself for 6+ years, I always give the advice I would want if it were my company. And if it were my company, I would not want to spend money unnecessarily on IP (patents and trademarks). If you always tell the truth, then you never have to worry about an alibi. For example, I tell my clients that three of the four things that we do for a living are a waste of money:

  1. Most foreign patents are a waste of money.
  2. Most foreign trademarks are a waste of money.
  3. Most US patents (especially on intangibles) are a waste of money.
  4. Most US trademarks are worth the expense.

It’s an odd pitch, to be sure. But it’s also true. And it helps us guide our clients into filing patents and trademarks only when it makes sense for the business. Which helps them spend less on IP and more on product. Which helps them have successful exits.

I suppose there is a silver lining to the whole winning/losing thing. My firm has a patent-for-stock offering for our serial entrepreneur friends. That would be winning/winning, which would be great.

In related news, congratulations to Clocktower Law client AppNexus on filing for its IPO! Oddly, I just nominated AppNexus founder Brian O’Kelley for President (but had no insider info about said IPO filing).


Erik claims to publish the #1 blog about technology, law, baseball, and rock ‘n’ roll at ErikJHeels.com. Brevity is not his strong suit.

TAGS: AppNexus, Brian O’Kelley, Erik J. Heels

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