Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The value of the answer is directly proportional to the quality of the question

A while back (longer than it should have been), Bijoy and I were discussing some Q&A's on the Bootstrap Austin yahoo group and Bijoy asked me to blog an expanded version of the comments. We were talking about the difficulty of giving meaningful answers to posters' questions that lack appropriate framing information. Whether it is a "who do you recommend" or "what should I do" kind of question, a good answer requires some specifics.

Examples of questions that beg questions in response:

I need software for online collaboration
  • What do you mean by "collaboration" ?
  • Are all users in one org ? LAN or Web ?
  • Is security a key issue ?
  • Do you have a budget or really need something free ?
Please recommend a good CPA
  • What is the form of the entity?
  • What is the nature of the business?
  • Is the business revenue in the range of $0-2 million, or more like $20 million?
  • Is this for general accounting and tax matters, or is there some major issue at hand?
The biggest issue is NOT that these responsive framing questions might clog the list (though that could become a problem). The person responding may provide a good answer in the context of a scenario that is critically different from that of the original poster, but the questioner may accept the answer and act upon it without recognizing the mismatch. One reason for this is that the question poster may have little knowledge or understanding of the subject area. That's why they're asking for help. But question posters can improve the situation by providing some information with which they are familiar about the circumstances and priorities that are applicable to the question and the answer. Responders can bear in mind that answers to vague questions need to be qualified as to the responder's frame of reference.

I grapple with this issue frequently in intellectual property questions because that is an area in which I have background and in which I frequently respond to Bootstrap list questions. Since many who ask IP-related questions on the list for the first time are, as mentioned, not familiar with these kinds of questions, let me provide a little proactive framing for future questions.

1 It is better to ask such questions here, or generally among IP-experienced business people, than to go straight to a patent attorney. Otherwise, (1) It is a self-fulfilling prediction that you'll be advised to file a patent application, and (2) that is a very expensive way to get basic or broad knowledge about IP.

2 When you are ready for an attorney, remember that not all attorneys are expert in the same things. Real estate attorneys should not do shareholder agreements, and divorce attorneys should not file patent applications. Even among patent attorneys, if the patent is important, you want someone with experience in the field and technology involved. And, you should ask about a patent attorneys experience in writing applications for inventors with commercialization strategies similar to your own. That assumes, or course, that you have a strategy when you walk in (hint, hint). So someone else's recommendation of a "great patent attorney" may not be what you really need.

3 IP includes Patents, Copyright, Trademark and Trade Secrets, which all have different purposes, effects and requirements. If you are not familiar with these and need some more basic information to choose a tactic or develop a strategy, those basic questions might be a better start than jumping into filing a patent.

4 If you believe that providing this background information about your company and your issue at hand will reveal too much proprietary information in the very open nature of the Bootstrap list, you may want to describe the area or nature of your question and invite people with experience or expertise in that area to contact you offline.

Don Jarrell (who is not an attorney) has worked with intellectual property from the business and Product Management perspective for (too) many years. In addition to operating a consulting practice in those areas, he is starting a software firm to provide a tool/system for performance metrics and analytics in the healthcare industry. He leads the Intellectual Property Initiative at Bootstrap Austin.

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