How Alpine Hammock Overcame a Threatening Patent Dispute - 1

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How Alpine Hammock Overcame a Threatening Patent Dispute - 1
Patent lawsuits can be time consuming and expensive. Ryan Stolp knows this all too well.

In 2012, he and co-founder Mike Brown created Alpine Hammock, designed to be lightweight and durable, a cross between a bivy sack (a small, waterproof shelter) and backpacking hammock. Sales had begun to accelerate after a Kickstarter campaign - they'd sold 72 $300 hammocks.

The pair had done their homework - they never imagined they'd be charged with infringing someone's patent. But within weeks of the Kickstarter campaign, a hammock company in Salt Lake City with a similar product on the market filed a patent for its design. And when its founders learned of Durham-based Alpine, they filed a suit that threatened to end the short life of Stolp's company.

Stolp was shocked, and distraught. The only similarity he found between Alpine's design and the competitor's was its a pole system. But he didn't have the money to fight what would likely be an expensive battle in court. He'd have to fold the company, or suck it up and create a hammock unique enough to avoid another suit.

Stolp's is a story familiar to many entrepreneurs. According to a 2013 Patent Litigation study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the percentage of patent-related legal actions have grown an average of 7 percent a year since 2001. And from 2011 to 2012, they grew 29 percent to reach a record high.

Meanwhile, the number of patents issued grew 11 percent in 2012 to more than 270,000. That means more patents are being filed, and that's causing more legal action surrounding them.

How Alpine Hammock Overcame a Threatening Patent Dispute - 2
Stolp's outcome could be much more pleasant than others. Alpine Hammock has raised $13,180 in a second Kickstarter campaign to fund a new hammock design. It incorporates a static pole system to make the hammocks more spacious, while still ensuring the same simplicity, durability and comfortableness of the original Alpine hammock. Stolp believes he has an even better hammock. But there are six days left to hit a $20,000 goal and prove it.

So how did a major disaster turn into a potential win?

Here's the back story of Alpine Hammock:

Stolp, a Tufts University graduate from Durham, earned a degree in engineering psychology in 2011. He and Brown became friends in college - they shared a love of the outdoors. Over time, they began to brainstorm a new and improved hammock for use on their adventures together. They wanted to make hiking easier - they envisioned an all-in-one hammock shelter that could be set up on the ground or in a tree. It would be light enough to carry on hikes and simple to set up on the fly.

The men had the credentials to make it happen.

Brown has a military background and experience working at Boston's Natick Labs, an R&D operation that develops new technology for the military. He's designed tents and other hard goods for infantry. And he's also a crowdfunding and crowd lending expert, giving talks around the country on the topics and writing on his blog. He also operates a startup called Gear Commons, an online platform for peers to share gear.

Stolp has had many an outdoor adventure. A Boy Scout growing up, he's since climbed in Kyrgyzstan and spent a semester on leave from college to hike in Patagonia. He helped organize the Vertical Ice Climbing Enthusiasts Club and Festival for the last five years, documenting his adventures in these videos. He also worked as a
How Alpine Hammock Overcame a Threatening Patent Dispute - 3
wilderness ranger on the Appalachian Trail and spends his winters dog sledding in Vermont. That's where he tests hammock prototypes.

But Stolp has always wanted to be a product designer in the outdoor industry, and to run his own company. Besides Alpine, he's co-founder of Deep South Mountaineering, which manufactures "innovative and eco-conscious [hiking] gear made in the USA," according to its website.

"I think freedom of schedule is incredibly under appreciated," he says. "When starting a company I wanted to work on projects I care about, I don't want to design junk - I want freedom of schedule so I can seize opportunities."

Demand for hammocks is strong and growing.

The men were clearly on to something with Alpine.

The outdoor recreation industry grew 5 percent annually between 2005 and 2011 (the last year that the Outdoor Industry Association published data) and companies like Eagles Nest Outfitters (ENO) of Asheville raised the profile of a new type of functional hammock for outdoor adventures.

Demand was also strong before the original hammocks were pulled from the market. Stolp received several requests from the military and from three world renowned climbers who wanted to use Alpine Hammocks during a tough climb in Canada. Supporters spoke out in support of the hammocks on sites like hammockforums.net.

The men raised $42,915 in the original Kickstarter campaign in August 2012, surpassing a goal of $40,000. Orders came in from Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wyoming, Switzerland, Portugal, South Africa and beyond.

But all that activity came to a halt when Clark Jungle Hammock sued Alpine after seeing its hammocks at an outdoor retailer show in Utah that year. Clark Jungle had only recently received a patent for its dynamic hammock spreader apparatus, which claims rights to any hammock with a tent-style pole that straddles the hammock edges and supports a rainfly. The only similarity between the two companies designs? A pole. But it was a key one.

After discussing different options with Clark, Alpine decided that heading back to the drawing board was the most productive and cost effective plan of action. They were forced to sign a settlement agreement.

The new Alpine Hammock.

Stolp says the suit put in a kink in things and slowed down development. It has forced the Alpine team to spend more time redesigning a product they were already confident in.

"Because of the breadth of this [Clark Jungle's] patent, it's a really drastic redesign," he says. "It should be really different materials, you have to have arguing points now as to why it's really different. I feel myself having to design to the language of the patent."

The new design incorporates a waterproof and air permeable fabric called eVent and a three-way rainfly so it stands up like a tripod when on the ground. There's a small aluminum and bungee pole system rather than a three-part fiberglass one. And more changes are likely to come as the design process continues. Stolp is busy at work with a sewing machine in his basement.

When the first products are ready, Alpine will fulfill all orders out of Hawk Distributors, Inc. in Sanford, SC. Stolp found the manufacturer through Maker's Row, an easy access working space for startups and designers. Stolp says the funding for the new prototypes is coming from leftover Kickstarter money, money from selling the old hammocks and from his product design/graphic design freelancing.

Though Stolp is working tirelessly to produce a new product different from Clark Jungle's, he still fears the company might sue again.

To mitigate that risk, he's now working with lawyers to evaluate the redesign from a legal standpoint. The new Kickstarter campaign will also help fund those legal fees.

Stolp says the entire process has made him into more a businessman - it's forced him to seek out resources for entrepreneurs.

But it's also validated his mission for Alpine Hammock.

"It's kinda flattering to be sued because that means our products are competitive in the market," he says.

So how do you avoid a patent infringement lawsuit?

According to a study by Lex Machina, the number of patent related cases has doubled, plus some in the past six years.

Darrell A. Fruth, a patent attorney at Brooks Pierce in Raleigh, says it's difficult to avoid.

"Have you read every one of those?" he says. "Because I sure haven't and I don't think anyone could have."

His advice to startups: Don't immediately despair if you're hit with a patent accusation. He says there might be a way to get through it, but it's best to consult with a good lawyer who is experienced in the area.

If you're at the early stages of launching or designing a product, he suggests spending a little bit of money at the beginning to consult with a patent lawyer. This will save you more in the long run.

Ed Timberlake, a trademark lawyer agrees. Timberlake says many young startups fear that they can't afford to talk with him, but it's easier and cheaper to do it before a lawsuit hits.

"The ideal amount of startup money to spend on a lawsuit is zero," he says. "You don't want to venture into an area where it's pretty likely to receive a cease and desist letter."

And though some smaller startups may be quick to call an opposing company a bully or a troll, Timberlake says that's a common misconception.

"The other side is not necessarily Goliath," he says. "I don't think it's fair to automatically say they're trying to extort money from these other people. They could also be trying to recoup some of their costs of the patent in the first place."

The lesson of the story is: be proactive. Talk to a lawyer as soon as possible to help prevent an expensive lawsuit or a years-long redesign, like Alpine's.