Securing a Patent: Not Easy, But Worthwhile

Every now and then you get something in the mail that makes you jump up and down a bit. This week the item was a letter confirming my patent had officially been granted. I’m an inventor!

The US government has made it official – I am creative! I’m sure if I am listed on future patents, it will feel less amazing, but right now I feel like a million bucks. If you have gone through the patent process, you know it takes years… I had actually forgotten to check in on the progress of this particular patent a while ago.  Now that I am basking in the glow of inventorship, my mind wanders to where it all began… crossing the silos of my organization.

Almost 4 years ago, early in my time at Experian, my boss insisted that I take a few days, go to headquarters and get to know a couple product managers from another division. A couple things you should know about me:

1) I love my own bed!  Sometimes there is no better way to accomplish a task than to travel for business, but for the most part, I would rather be at home instead of on the road.

2) Believe it or not, I consider myself more of an introvert. That means “networking for networking’s sake” does not make my list of favorite things to do.

3) I thrive when I’m getting down to business, detailing project milestones, and knocking down each hurdle. Making small talk about the weather? Not so much.

This trip was a perfect storm of all the things that aren’t a natural strength or preference of mine. Fortunately, the women on the other end of this trip were gracious, intelligent and interesting people which made the whole experience start positively.  Positive, but still not “productive” in my book.

Near the end of my second day there, one of the women posed a problem many of her clients faced every day.  As it was a completely different world (consumer credit), it had never dawned on me that such a problem existed.  Luckily for both of us, my division had a long running program, that when combined with a few assets on her side, solved the client’s problem in an innovative way!  An idea was born! Four years later, my former colleague, and I are now both listed as inventors on the patent granted for our creative solution.

Over the last 4 years, she became more than just a co-inventor, she became a true asset from another business unit within a huge, global corporation. We hit each other up for information on credit regulations and general practices (her expertise), and digital marketing (my specialty). That trip was the beginning of a continuing and productive friendship.

I’ve always preached to clients about the importance of reaching across the aisles, breaking down silos, and working together for the greater good, but in all honestly, I hadn’t practiced it as often as I had preached.

If you are anything like me, and you need your conversations to be productive in order to be enjoyable, consider these possibilities.

  • Are you looking for budget to invest in a new product or program focused on analytics? It may surprise you to find that your finance department will find that expense worthwhile, even exciting, if it helps prove the effectiveness of a marketing program. I can say that on good authority; I married a finance wiz who has spent his career in the CPG industry. Over dinner, I talk endlessly about whatever measurement and closed loop analytics program I am working on at the time (what can I say? I love what I do). He always asks, “Why isn’t our marketing team doing stuff like this? They always ask for budget, but their reports don’t seem to connect to revenue at all.”  Unfortunately for the marketing contacts that had to work with him, I armed him with all kinds of detail to use in his meetings to push them for better analytics. Something else I know about finance contacts…they are not often asked to lunch! Amazing things could happen if better connections were made between marketing and finance.

  • Are you working on a product or initiative that may require a privacy or legal review? I’ve built solutions in the past based on my own knowledge of data and privacy regulations, and then attempted a “speedy” approval by the legal team before launch. It’s worked a few times, but the more complex the solution or the industry, the more I realized that I needed to pull in the real experts early on. For instance, I’ve worked on products that leveraged two particularly sensitive types of data… credit data and voter registration data. I started hitting up our attorney and our resident compliance expert earlier for those products.  The more frequently we talked, I realized that there should not be a “us vs. them” mentality when working with legal team. In fact, they actually don’t look forward to shutting down programs. They want to be a creative problem solver – just like you! They just know the rules better than the rest of us. With more and more work under our belt together, my legal contacts became true friends – so much so that I found myself looking forward to my legal and compliance reviews! (Gasp!) Because I had built a bridge with legal and compliance teams and knew the value of bringing them in early on, I was also proud to launch a couple initiatives that others had let stall – one of the benefits of reaching across the aisle!

  • We stand on the shoulders of giants. If you are reading this, you may be focused on cutting edge digital products. That’s great, keep on innovating! But there is definitely something to be gained by talking to the people running the processes that were innovative 20 or even 30 years ago, after all, what you’re working on most likely builds upon the innovation or processes they put in place decades ago. After working for a digital company (Yahoo!), and transitioning to a more traditional data company (Experian), I was shocked at how many programs were created 20+ years ago, where clients are still finding immense value. We get so focused on the new cool ways to perform data linkage, hygiene, measurement, that we forget that many of those processes existed when we were still in diapers. Your colleagues, who can actually contemplate retirement, may be a wealth of information for that new hot product you are creating.

    Are you craving more data? I’ve met with so many organizations over the years, and when I suggest they plug in an additional data point for better analysis, they say they don’t have it. I point out, “Yes, you do. You collect it here.” And they say, “Oh, that’s XYZ department. We don’t have access.” Unfortunately, the conversation typically ends there. Can you imagine if all of your company’s data was able to come together for greater use? What a fantastic customer experience you could deliver- customizing all points of communication around what they the customer have already shared with “you”, the brand. Chances are, if that department has data that you could use, your department has data that could help them as well.

Developing connections like those I’ve suggested above is no simple or comfortable task, especially for those of us who are awkward in new encounters. Here are some ways to make the process painless for all.

  • Identify your cross-silo, new best friend, target. It is always useful to have an objective to make sure the relationship turns into something fruitful for both of you, but it could also just be an exercise in knowing a new part of the company. Once you have narrowed it down to a division, or portion of your organization, reach out to your current network and get their thoughts on who could be a good connection to have.  Aim for someone who is interested in new ideas.  First of all, this will make a connection more possible, but it’s also a good foundation for future brainstorming between you. You can review social media, like LinkedIn or internal channels like Chatter, to see if they are posting or engaging with content that you find interesting. As a cherry on top, it’s great to find someone who seems to be able to get things done in their organization. The ability to accomplish an initiative shows a greater understanding of their department, which is exactly what you are looking to gain.

  • Establish your commonalities in advance. Did you attend the same school? Do you know if they have children? Did one of your current leaders come from their organization?  You’ll want to identify these connections – personal or professional –  in advance of your conversation.  This isn’t a blind date where you are expected to ask the basic questions at the table.  This is a business opportunity where both of you may be struggling to find a starting point.

  • Try to make that first encounter in person. Those first conversations where you are getting to know each other can be awkward already.  Imagine talking about your children or interests on a conference call while the other person may be checking their email. This may be difficult for those of you who work remotely- I have been in that seat now for 5 years.  Try to maximize your business trips; they are great opportunities to meet someone new (and an excuse to expense dessert).  Which brings me to my next point…

  • Try to schedule your first meeting over a meal. Without food, the situation can feel like every other business meeting- meaning, let’s jump right to the topic, and get out of here as soon as possible. I am a fan of those meetings when I’m looking to be efficient and get down to business. But if the objective of the meeting is to form a personal connection to add to your network, not so much.  A meal instantly makes everyone attending less focused only on the task at hand, but also enjoying the opportunity to step away from the daily grind.  Plus, if your new connection is an important and efficient person, which hopefully they are, it may be easier to get on their calendar with lunch. They have to eat anyway!

I hope this blog reaches the right eyes – my fellow introverts! Lucky for me, I partnered with someone who loves talking to new people and making new connections.  Everyone knows Brie, and Brie knows me, so I can often rest on that. 😉  If you aren’t lucky enough to have a partner to introduce you to the greater world when it’s needed, or if you just want to push yourself to develop as a professional, and build your personal brand, I hope you’ll take action.  Ask someone to coffee, or lunch.  Research them in advance to find points you share in common as conversation starters, and most importantly, go in with a positive and open attitude. This may be the person to help you move to the next level in your career, remove a block that you have been facing for years, or even help you earn your first patent!