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By J.D. Houvener
Patent Attorney and Founder

What are some of the challenges that you think individual inventors face and entrepreneurs as you get started? What were some initial hurdles and barriers that you personally had to clear?

So, for me personally, and I hear this echoed from a lot of other engineers and technical personnel, is clearing space in your workweek to be able to work on engineering projects, work on inventions. There’s so much that vies for our time—meetings, emails, administrative tasks, cleaning off your desk. It’s an endless supply of distractions. Unless you really put a priority on blocking out a minimum of four hours for engineering, whether it’s on a specific day or throughout the week—and I’ve heard about writers dealing with this too, some writers who were doing books on the side had to do it in their first hour or two of the day every single day, and they just had a routine. And I think it’s helpful to have that kind of routine for engineering as well.

Awesome, so you think kind of prior to that prioritizing and blocking out time is important?

Yeah, it’s kind of, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of stuff in life that can interject and will interject if you don’t block it out. Is that right?

Right, and the only way that I’ve been able to succeed with that is actually enlisting the help of both my family and my friends to let them know, you know, clearly I really need your support. For example, if I’m laying out a board that can frequently take like 12 hours straight because you’re just focused and you’re thinking of like nine different things at the same time, and you don’t want cats or other distractions during that time. And you kind of don’t want to start again. It’s not a project that you can just like do 30 minutes of, you really have to like, sometimes it takes like eight minutes just to open the software because it’s so computer-intensive for the processor.

Excellent. Well, let’s talk a little more specifically about inventing. You mentioned you had initial experience at your previous company in the corporate setting, was it FujiFilm, was that what you were saying?

Okay, and then when you started on your own, maybe tell us about the first time where you thought, ‘Hey, I’m inventing,’ or when you thought about learning about the law of patents, and how you began to get educated there.

So this is actually a really good question for me to answer. I had actually been encouraged not to patent because we’re such a huge proponent of open source, both open source software and open-source hardware, which is still in its initial stages. I would have to say it’s only been the certification for open-source hardware that has only been available for the last maybe six years now. And so, you know, we had been trained that prior art is very important in establishing, you know, kind of a track record in the open-source arena. However, I decided two years into it that we wanted to file patents and trademarks, not so much to go after other corporations but to allow us freedom to operate. So, to establish without a doubt that we are the first company to succeed in making a round phone. And so we wanted to continue making non-rectangular phones for non-rectangular people and to be able to protect that right and have that freedom to do so. And have no one else contest that. We wanted to file the patents to protect those rights.

Wonderful. Did you do some of that research, well, some of that thinking on your own by gathering resources and looking online, finding books? How did you get educated about that decision to move forward?

That’s a really good question. So, I actually attended a lot of seminars. We’re really fortunate to be in Seattle, in the Seattle area, because there are so many, at least when we started, particularly around 2018 when we started looking into patenting, there’s a ton. There’s a huge startup ecosystem in Seattle, at least at that time. And there were tons of training seminars offered by different law firms in conjunction with the trade office itself. And so, because of that, I attended very thorough and deep dives into the whole process itself. But I think you don’t appreciate the intricacies of the entire process until you go through it yourself. Because watching on a slide deck, like okay, this deadline is 30 months later and this deadline is 18 months later and this deadline is 12 months later. Like, you don’t really keep track of that until you actually have to go through it yourself. And I think one of the ways that Bold IP has been helpful for us is keeping us on track with those deadlines specifically. That’s been really useful.

Awesome. Let’s think about the creative process and inventing as you go, type of thing. As you’ve started, maybe filing the patents, have you found that there’s more ways to spur more creation or more innovation as you’ve gone?

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think that, for example, in our case, we developed a very gorgeous design. And as soon as that came to light, we felt very protective of it and decided this is the design that we want to patent. However, in parallel to that, we’ve been iterating other designs over and over and over again. So, for example, we do have some additions that we’ve made to the iterative process just since COVID. That I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, maybe we should patent that,’ because no other smartphone has that. And so, we have developed kind of proprietary features to our smartphones that are not yet protected. But, you know, like in our case, we just want the freedom to operate. We are not necessarily looking to prevent other people from being in this space. But we want to be in the space and we want our features to continue being in the space and to have no one else block us from those things. And so, I think that’ll be a decision that we’ll have to make before the next release of our smartphone. So, we’ve released two smartphones already, a 2G version, a 4G version. And then we have 50,000 people who are waiting for our 5G version. But, we’re stuck in the situation that they would only want to pay $250 for it. But, you know, the chip inside costs $250. So, we’re stuck at this point. But, if we do find and we are researching other ways to make it less expensive. And if we do surmount those obstacles, then I think that’s the time to actually patent the additional features that we’ve been working on.

Got it. Thank you. And along those lines, can you talk about how you went about finding a manufacturer for your phone, for your devices? How did that go? And tell us about that.

That’s actually not an easy process. I was really fortunate to attend a talk back in, I think, 2014, 2015, about someone from the Seattle area who was pointing out that yeah, you can manufacture more cheaply in China. But, by the time you factor in all of the shipping costs—and at that time, we didn’t even have tariffs—but, by the time you factor everything in and the global political situation. And we’ve had to deal with COVID shipping issues. In 2020, we were affected by that. And so, when you factor all of that in, it actually sometimes makes more sense to manufacture stateside or at least in North America. Not only, so in this particular talk, they pointed out that the price, the cost of goods sold, maybe lower in China, but the shipping costs are maybe on a different sheet. And so, it’s important to really have an overall understanding of the entire supply chain. You’re like on Shark Tank, these terms like, what’s the landed cost, right when it automatically gets here. And I just, you know, so that makes sense. So, you want to make sure you’re thoughtful about okay, what is the true cost? Make sure there’s gonna be some profit left, right?

And the other really important issue is being in the same time zone. So, for example, if you’re making goods—there are a few manufacturers just outside of Tijuana. If you’re making goods into you, at least they’re in the same time zone. You don’t have to wait 24 hours to receive a response. And so, time is money, in the end. And the faster you can iterate your design changes, the faster you can get goods to a consumer. So, there’s a lot to be said for manufacturing in North America rather than elsewhere. So, some tools that I’ve learned about since we found our manufacturers are one is called pcbdirectory.com. And so, I highly recommend if you are just doing prototypes to just prototype stateside, particularly if you’re patenting in the United States and you’re a business in the United States.

Being able to search for those manufacturers Stateside is really important. They can also work with you on your design a lot more than if you were manufacturing, say, at some place in China. PCBWay is very popular, JLC PCB is very popular as well, and I’ve ordered boards from them as well. Interestingly enough, last year we experienced a kind of a glut of designs, you know, the supply chain and recovered for the most part. Engineers were finally able to submit their designs for manufacturing. Between August and December of last year, manufacturers were actually slowing down, and the turnaround time was lagged several weeks, even at manufacturers in China. So, it’s important to just be patient with whomever you’re working with, whether it’s Stateside or elsewhere, and just work along with them. It really pays off in the end.

Awesome. And have you had to fire or move or change manufacturers, or have you been lucky and stuck with one?

We’ve been really fortunate. We have a manufacturer in Bellevue who manufactures all of our printed circuit boards, and they’ve been exceptional. They’re like two-thirds of the price of most West Coast manufacturers, and their quality has been stellar. I think they started out doing work for Boeing, and they do work for SpaceX and Blue Origin now, amongst other companies. They’re not able to talk about it, but in the industry, I know that they do work for those companies. Doing your homework and also asking around is really important. Word of mouth is super important. People are usually willing, especially in hardware, to share with you their war wounds and battle stories. Just asking everybody you meet about their experiences is really important.

A couple more questions here. Let’s talk about going to market. You mentioned you’ve got a 2D phone, a 4G, and a 5G that lots of people are waiting for. How have you seen to be the most successful ways to sell your product or service on the market?

Probably not the way that we’ve been doing.

Okay, yeah, what ways should we not go to market? But I already told you I’d advise someone.

So, if you have, the way that we do it is we run crowdfunding campaigns so that we can afford to do a manufacturing run. Then we allow backers to have early access to our smartphone designs as a reward if they’ve pledged at a certain level. That’s been very rewarding to us. We get to know the backers personally and get their feedback on our product, and those backers are more invested in our product than if they had just purchased us at, say, Target. That’s worked for us, but it may not be the solution for everyone else. For example, one of the challenges that we run into is that running a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter or Indiegogo or Tindie or any of the other popular crowdfunding sites is great if your device or object or offering is less than a hundred dollars. Our offering is actually seven hundred dollars, so we offer that at a discount if you buy our phone retail; then it’s a thousand dollars. So, if you back us through crowdfunding and help us fund our manufacturing cycle, then you do receive it for a severe discount. That doesn’t work for every business, and I think getting your product placed in stores is its whole other adventure. We’re just not there yet; we may be there in the future. We’ve had many resellers reach out to us globally, from the Middle East, from Africa, particularly in South Africa. I don’t know why we get contacted all the time, but they really would like to sell our product there. Most of our interest in the Circle Phone comes from India. So, we have researched manufacturing there because the cost of goods would certainly be less. We wouldn’t have to pay the tariffs that we do on those four items that we get from China. There’s lots of benefits to manufacturing where you deliver your product to your customer. Those are all works in progress. Manufacturing in India is maturing at a rapid rate just in the last four years. Many smartphone companies, Samsung, Apple, Xiaomi, have opened up factories in India because of it.

Yeah, it’s been an adventure for us to market and sell our product. We’re lucky that we have a large following, but it takes a lot of work to grow that. If you don’t invest the time and the effort in that, your product just won’t sell.

Right. I want to give you an opportunity to do some bragging here. Tell us some of your proudest and biggest achievements. I know you’ve got a lot of work yet just to go, but let’s look back and reflect. What are some of the highest moments that you’ve had?

Definitely getting the patents this time. We got one last March, then last December, and then this March as well. Seeing that paperwork and getting those awards was certainly meaningful. This year also had another exceptionally happy note: we won the CES 2023 Innovation Award Honoree award. I think it’s in my closet back here. We haven’t announced it publicly because we’re waiting on one more thing to happen this year, and then we’ll be bragging about it more publicly. I can brag about it here. But congratulations; that is wonderful, a huge achievement. I would say having 50,000 right people that want your product, that’s a big achievement too.

Yes, and then having 50,000 people kind of equates—you can do the math—only five percent will probably buy it. But like, but you want those numbers, those initial numbers, to be large so that when you do the math in the end, you’ll be able to sell your products.

Excellent. Okay, and we’re doing all three. One more opportunity, what would you say about your branding, really quickly, in terms of your company? There’s Detour and then there’s the Circle Phone and trademark. Talk a little about how that has been impactful.

One brutal lesson that we learned early on, our company name is Detour. It stands for, it’s an acronym, it stands for Designing the Opposite of Rectangle Everyone. Then we have a stop sign as our look, that logo. Gosh, do I have it, I think on the screen. Oh, you got it. Yes, okay, so here’s our company logo, and then everyone thought that we were a construction company. I don’t know if my screen is backward to you. No, yeah, I can see it properly. This is actually a product, the Circle Phone logo right here. It was important for us to trademark both of those. But when we started out with the Detour logo, everyone thought we were a construction company. Our mission was lost. So, we added, I don’t know if you can see, we added our slogan, non-rectangular phones for non-rectangular people. Yes, and so now, anytime we mention the company name, we always include that slogan. Whether it’s on business cards, it’s really important on business cards. This is a side note, but I’ve been to tons of conferences, I have over 2,000 business cards that I’ve scanned into my collection. If you don’t list what you do on your business card or what your product does on your business card, it will get lost at the end of the conference. For example, if you hand out your business card in meetings during conferences, people will not remember what you do unless the name of your company or the name of your product says exactly what it does. That’s why we named this phone that we’re doing now the Circle Phone, but we have the ability to make, of course, the oval phone, the heart-shaped phone, the octagon phone, the hexagon phone. There’s also a star-shaped display that we’ve been looking to make something out of it. It actually looks kind of like a bubbly flower, but it fits so well in the hand. All of these shapes fit better in the hand than our current rectangular phone. We’d really like to explore these other non-rectangular phone offerings, but we’ll see what happens.

Wonderful. As we close, I want to ask the last question here. Any thoughts you’d like to share about Bold or our team?

Yes, so Chris has been working since nearly the beginning, and he’s just been exceptional at getting our design on paper and being able to translate that into a patentable work. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to make that happen. I’ve been looking at other videos on the website, and it sounds like he does that for other clients as well. He’s just really gifted in that area. The other thing that he’s good at is convincing the examiners to push a patent through. We’ve had, you know, when people first learn about our product, having a non-rectangular phone, like their brain just can’t even accept the idea of a circle phone. You have to sometimes walk some people through that, and he’s been very good at doing that on behalf of our product, and I really appreciate him for it.

It was so nice to hear, thank you, Christina, for sharing. We are at the end here. I will turn the recording off unless you want to have anything else on the record you want to share.

No, I just really appreciate your support throughout the years. I didn’t realize heading into the patent process what a lifelong relationship—because you’re linked for a long time. I’m really grateful that you were recommended to us and that you’ve been such a good partner for our company.

Thank you. You’re very welcome. Thank you for those kind words. All right, we’ll stop that report.

About the Author
J.D. Houvener is a Registered USPTO Patent Attorney who has a strong interest in helping entrepreneurs and businesses thrive. J.D. leverages his technical background in engineering and experience in the aerospace industry to provide businesses with a unique perspective on their patent needs. He works with clients who are serious about investing in their intellectual assets and provides counsel on how to capitalize their patents in the market. If you have any questions regarding this article or patents in general, consider contacting J.D. at https://boldip.com/contact/