Flying solo: starting and building an international trademark practice
Arlette Molenaar started her independent trademark practice almost by accident after leaving a long-term role. Five years later her business, EQUIPP, is thriving and she is a big advocate of the benefits that small practices can offer. In the second in our series on solo trademark practitioners, we talked to Arlette about the tools and tactics she’s used to start and grow her business, and how she feels the market is for small practitioners right now…
Arlette is a solo practitioner trademark and design attorney who specialises in international trademark and design portfolio, EU trademark and design law. Prior to launching her own business, she spent ten years working for global IP practice Zacco and, on leaving that role, was enjoying a sabbatical when she was approached by a former client.
“The client asked if I would continue to handle their portfolio,” says Arlette. “When other people also started sending me work, I decided to set up my own practice and simply see what would happen. It has now been five years and I am still a solo practitioner, much to my delight.”
That was in 2014, and Arlette now has a successful practice and is respected as one of the leading trademark practitioners in the Benelux region. Her main initial challenge was the competition clause by which she was bound, meaning that she couldn’t approach her industry contacts, but much of her business now comes via recommendation and word of mouth, so this hasn’t been a long-term problem.
When it comes to the practicalities of setting up the business and selecting productivity tools, Arlette decided to keep things straightforward. “I built my own website and deliberately kept that very simple. In the beginning I used Excel for accounting, but now I use Moneybird. All the software I use is cloud-based and remotely accessible so I can work from anywhere.
Arlette invested in WebTMS for the same reason. “I’ve used WebTMS from the start as a docketing system is essential in my view. It’s web-based and easy to use with excellent customer support whether you are a large or small client. Also, their business model is different: when your practice is small you pay less than when you’re a big firm and fees only increase when your practice grows. But even for small clients all the updates and improvements are included and the support department is easy to reach and always available to assist.”
Client recruitment is always an important consideration for a new business. While many of Arlette’s clients come via referrals through her personal network, she also makes it a priority to invest in continuing education and growing her network through attendance at industry events. “I attend INTA every year and MARQUES every other year and find this is the most effective way to grow my reputation.” Given the limited time available to solo practitioners for non-core activities, she has made the conscious decision not to carry out wider marketing campaigns. “I do not invest further in my website, blogging or online marketing – it does not always result in the kind of clients that I prefer to work with.” Echoing a comment made by fellow solo practitioner Daniel Coleman in our first blog on the topic, Arlette notes that, “clients who approach me randomly are often merely shopping around.”
Offering a differentiated service
It’s important to differentiate yourself as a solo practitioner to build a successful business, says Arlette, who has focused on building her reputation as a knowledgeable attorney with a commercial mindset. “I used to work as in-house counsel at Tommy Hilfiger and this valuable experience with such a well-known brand has been useful in obtaining new clients.” External references are also important: “I invest time in trying to get a profile in the WTR1000, the World Trademark Report’s 1000 Leading Trademark Professionals register. This acknowledgement is useful when you have a small practice. In addition, I invest in a good foreign associates network to ensure I can offer international reach.”
Life as a solo practitioner has several major benefits, according to Arlette, chief of which is the greater focus you can achieve when working for yourself: “The big advantage is that there is no politics any more, no meetings, no teams to get aligned – these are all challenges that you face on bigger firms. You actually get to focus 100% on your work, which is what I love.”
On the flipside there is the lack of external support for activities like administration. “There is definitely some more administrative stuff that you have to do, and you need to solve your own IT issues – I don’t really mind that, though. I think a good trademark attorney is already well-organised by nature – it comes naturally – so admin is not such a burden. Also, I have become much more IT-tech savvy now that I have to figure it all out myself!”
The benefits of using a solo practitioner
There are certain key advantages for clients who work with a small practitioner, says Arlette, “you can offer a very personal, quick service and a helicopter view. No vital information gets “lost” in communication challenges among a large team.” There can also be a sense of camaraderie among entrepreneurs. “Many clients that built up their own company like to work with another self-starter, they like to give work to someone who has built up his or her own business rather than picking a big firm.”
Arlette believes that the market is very positive for small and solo firms right now. “I think it’s easier to run a small practice right now than a bigger firm,” she says. “Firstly, there’s a lot of work out there but it’s difficult to find the right people to do it. At least as a small practice that’s not a worry as you do all the work yourself! Secondly, small firms are more flexible IT-wise and leaner than bigger firms that have a hard tie to adapt and modernise their systems. This means that we can offer a more efficient, up-to-date service without the risks associated with using legacy technology.”
Thank you, Arlette, for sharing your insights with us. Find out more about EQUIPP via the website.