IP Centrum is changing IP services. WIPR caught up with CEO Simon de Banke to discuss how ‘different’ can be ‘better’ for renewals, European patent validations and beyond.
From a rural converted barn just outside Birmingham, UK, IP Centrum is developing IP formalities services which appear to challenge the norms and conventions of an industry built, with good reason, on norms and convention.
With a claimed standard two-week European patent validation turnaround, significantly reduced costs compared to traditional methods, and a remarkable zero-fail record to date, the company seems to grate against that old truth about business: that it’s not possible to be fast, high-quality and low-cost all at the same time.
The easy interface and slick services visible from the outside hide a list of challenged industry norms and conventional wisdom, which seem obvious in retrospect, but are products of a different culture and a different approach, even to the very notion of ‘services’ as a concept.
CEO Simon de Banke’s vision for IP services has always been an unusual one, relying on re-imagining the way in which the industry operates as a whole. What once seemed like simply nice talk from an industry upstart increasingly looks like a credible rethinking of the established norms upon which the industry has long-relied. It certainly seems to be working.
WIPR spoke to him to get more into the details of what is so different about IP Centrum’s approach, and why.
You speak a lot about IP Centrum’s obsession with doing things differently. Is different necessarily better?
Different definitely does not automatically mean better. But I don’t think great change and progress can happen without thinking and acting differently.
When we build services we work extremely hard to avoid knowing “how it’s done”. It’s very hard to meaningfully ask questions when you already have stock answers to them, and so the more you know about how a problem is usually solved, the harder it is to come up with something new.
We question everything, and we will not settle for “because that’s how it’s done” as an answer. This has led us to some incredible breakthroughs, some of which seemed impossible or at least impractical before, but appear obvious and easy now.
Everyone wants to achieve a 100% success rate, in this or any other industry. What is it about IP Centrum which makes you able to accomplish what you think other providers can’t?
I wouldn’t say “can’t”, but I think for now they just “haven’t”. There are a lot of very smart people in the IP industry. We’re no smarter than the smartest people in the industry. I think we just come at it from a different angle.
One of the most important factors is that we build our services like products. This is an important distinction. Services are traditionally built by employing a team of people with experience and knowledge so that when a question is asked, or an instruction received, one of the team knows what to do or who to ask.
A product can’t do that. A television needs to know exactly how to switch channel, or increase the volume, or alter the colour gamut—should it be instructed to do so—before it leaves the factory. It can’t ask someone, or seek clarification from its customer. Both the process of delivery and the user interface need to be defined and perfected before the first instruction is received.
We think of services the same way. We obsess over identifying every possible question, and every possible instruction up front, before we open the service for business. We design processes to make this super-efficient, and we build a method, to allow our clients to place these instructions with us, that is so clear and unambiguous that it just feels like magic.
These kinds of things mean we don’t misunderstand, or have an off-day, or make mistakes, or cause delays. It all just happens without fuss or fanfare, and we love that.
The downside is that the front-loaded effort and cost to produce a service is much greater compared to traditional methods, before we take a single instruction. And we only find out if we’ve done a good job once we go live and people either love it or we have to accept we’ve messed up and need to learn and make changes.
How do you work out what direction to develop your services in? Do you get feedback from clients, or conduct market research?
This can be misunderstood, but we actually work really hard not to involve our clients in the development of our services. This sounds arrogant, yet it is actually the absolute opposite. Henry Ford was famed for saying “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses’.” It feels a little like that was an insult, but I like to think he just meant “It isn’t my customer’s job to obsess day and night about how to build a revolutionary new product so I can sell it back to them. It’s mine!”
Of course there are incredibly valuable and insightful learnings to be had by listening extremely carefully to our clients—and we do. But if we decide to rely on our clients to do our innovating for us, then we’re just being lazy, and laziness never produces spectacular results.
There’s massive jeopardy in that ethos of course. If what we deliver is bad, then our clients tell us straight, or will (quite understandably) just stop using us! But we just think it’s a bit of a cop-out to ask if what we’re doing is good, to somehow try to avoid taking that responsibility.
What is it about the business that allows you to work in this way?
I guess the yin and yang which makes up the ethos and culture of any great business could be characterised as engineering and philosophy. On one hand you have the functional, the activities, methods, rules and constraints: the engineering. On the other side is the way you think about things, and the actual way you perform the engineering part: the philosophy.
At IP Centrum, the philosophy certainly leads and guides the engineering, which is not always the case in business.
For example, we work with a wonderful team of foreign associates and agents around the world who perform spectacular work for us, and we think of them as family.
We select them, care about them, and work closely with them to ensure the absolute highest standards are always maintained. They may not always be the biggest name in their territory, but they’ve been hand-selected because we think they’re the best.
We think it’s our job to take full responsibility for the work they do, and unlike some other service providers, we shouldn’t use terms and conditions to absolve ourselves of responsibility for their work. We take full responsibility, end-to-end. That’s our philosophy.
But this creates an engineering problem. It means we need to understand far more than our competitors about the processes and regulations in each territory. At first, no professional indemnity insurance company could get their heads around the seemingly ludicrous risk, but once we presented the depth and extreme levels of diligence contained within our procedures and technology a few more progressive and intelligent insurers got it.
These things represent a level of detail and effort which are arguably disproportionate to the end result. But we just think it’s the right thing to do, no matter how challenging, and we keep pushing and finding solutions until these challenges are overcome.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
At present you offer European patent validation and patent renewals. Can you tell us more about what’s coming next? What is the ultimate aim?
We have a pretty clear vision of who and what we are, and what we’re trying to be. We don’t want to be an IP firm, or to perform the kinds of services which are fee-earning, consultative or grey areas. We don’t think we can be the best in the world at those and there are companies and professionals doing a far better job of that than we can. We’re interested in IP formalities—services which are binary: do it all 100% correctly and it gets done. Do it 99.9% correctly and it completely fails.
We want to support great IP formalities professionals and to make their daily lives much better, helping them to dramatically improve speed, cost, reliability, visibility—the whole thing. These guys have a tough job, we haven’t met a single IP formalities professional with enough hours in the day, and yet they can sometimes be forgotten.
This is why we focus our passion and effort on building the absolute finest possible services to support them, rather than on how to convince their superiors to sign a contract with us. We find they, and their superiors, are generally pretty smart, and don’t need their hands holding to be able to tell the difference!
What advice would you give to companies attempting to emulate IP Centrum’s record?
First job, stop relying on key performance indicators (KPIs). They’re a big favourite of corporations around the world, but all they tend to do is comfort a board that it’s OK to be imperfect, as long as we monitor how imperfect, and have someone responsible for reducing that imperfection.
It’s a polar different thing to truly set out to achieve a 100% record, which never drops below 100%.
This seems impossible, but it just isn’t, and we’ve proven that. The biggest mindset shift is to stop relying on the fact that human beings make mistakes as an excuse. If you build a service on the assumption that it will only be perfect if nobody makes any mistakes, then you are categorically deciding to launch a service which will fail at exactly the rate that humans make mistakes. You’ve given up before you begin.
"It’s the right thing to do, no matter how challenging, and we keep pushing and finding solutions until these challenges are overcome."
The art and science is to accept that we all make mistakes, but design your service to allow for people to make mistakes, without that leading to a service failure.
Most corporates don’t address this, but those that do usually put in place cumbersome processes which slow everything down, and rarely actually achieve the goal. We try to do the opposite. Our processes dramatically reduce errors and actually speed things up all at the same time. It’s hard to do, but it isn’t impossible.
A good example of this is the way we handle proof files. First, we make sure we are satisfied that a proof file really does constitute physical proof, rather than just forwarding them on to our clients blindly. But to avoid someone accidentally passing an invalid proof file as valid, we have a “proof approval screen” within our internal systems.
Staff are presented with a proof file randomly, with no pre-warning of which patent or renewal it was uploaded against. The staff member is then asked a series of questions, such as “What grant number does this proof relate to?” and “What territory is this proof representing?” If the answers match the data on file, it’s inconceivable that the staff member just guessed them randomly and correctly, so we can be absolutely sure the proof file represents the correct case.
Instead of going to all that trouble, it would be easy for a company to just rely on saying “The grant number was 312 and the proof said 123 … it’s such an easy mistake to make!” We prefer to say “That’s a mistake someone could easily make, so let’s engineer that out of the service.”
You feel your company culture has a large impact on your results. What is different about working at IP Centrum?
We have a team of wonderful people who truly care about each other and our shared mission. We interview a lot of people for each role, because we’re looking for extremely special individuals. We work long hours, and each hour is packed full of focused effort and precision. The environment suits someone who wants to do something that really matters, and is just not willing to settle, or to make do.
You have to have a lot of resilience and the energy to keep trying against adversity, because when you’re doing things nobody has done before, there’s nobody to copy, and nothing to benchmark against. You just have to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again even harder.
You need to be totally comfortable owning your mistakes, and you should naturally respect people who are willing to say things like “I don’t know” or “That was my fault” or “You know what? I was wrong.”
We expect a lot of our team, but we work insanely hard to go to extreme lengths to thank everyone, from unlimited holidays, to organic food, language lessons in the evening, on-site hairdressing, and some of the best parties the business world has ever seen! We work hard to treat our people with the respect and care they rightly deserve.
As this goes to press, for example, we will have just announced to our team that we’ve hired two extraordinary, genuinely world-class chefs to create spectacular food for our team which is super healthy, creative and utterly delicious, using the finest ingredients and from a state-of-the-art, purpose-built kitchen.
In the future we will open to the public a day a month to showcase our culinary team’s creations, and because I want to see if we can achieve a Michelin star for our staff restaurant! If I expect the extraordinary from my team then the very least I should do is demonstrate the same approach.
We let people go quickly who are not working out, with our love and best wishes for the future, in order to respect the team. It isn’t an environment for everyone. But if you’re built the right way, this is the place, and we think of ourselves as family.
Are the differences between IP Centrum and others in the industry reflected in the kinds of clients you target?
There are some old-fashioned areas of the industry which operate on the basis of trying to be “no worse than everyone else”. We’re not for those guys, and they’ll probably carry on as they are for now anyway. Our services are suited to those special few IP formalities professionals and the IP firms who care deeply about doing the absolute best possible job for their clients, based on empirical fact and logical deduction, rather than just a fear of change. The type of IP formalities professional who chose their career to do something that matters.
Simon de Banke is CEO of IP Centrum. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @simondebanke. Or for general enquiries email@example.com or @ipcentrum on Twitter
IP Centrum, Simon de Banke, IP renewals, patent, patent renewals