Solos & Small Firms

Niche Trademark Practice Taps Solo’s Entrepreneurial Genes


Josh Gerben knows a thing or two about running a small business. The Washington, D.C., solo comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, including a great-grandmother who ran a successful bakery and a father who ran a chain of automotive repair shops. Gerben began working early, helping grow the family business by cleaning bathrooms and performing other menial tasks.

“It’s just something that was ingrained in me at a young age,” says Gerben, 29, who tapped his own entrepreneurial instincts in 2008 by opening a niche practice dedicated exclusively to processing trademark applications.

“Small businesses don’t want to pay $300 an hour,” says Gerben, whose push for ever-higher volumes landed him the No. 3 spot in 2009 among individual attorneys nationwide filing trademark applications, according to a survey by Corporation Service Co. His practice has filed more than 1,100 applications and counting since inception.

Gerben’s strict assembly-line approach to trademark filings allows him to be highly competitive. He charges $495 per application, a steep discount over rivals who typically command $1,500 to $2,000 for similar services. He keeps his costs to a minimum by using his brother as a paralegal, conducting research in-house and subletting office space from his former employer.

But Gerben’s real key to success may be the one area where he hasn’t skimped on expense: a strategic approach to online marketing. Gerben has invested more than $30,000 in search engine optimization services to help boost traffic to his website, and it’s paid off with inquiries and business coming from as far away as Australia, Singapore and China.

Law firm consultant Ed Poll of Venice, Calif., says Gerben’s experience shows how marketing oneself as a specialist pays off. “One of the advantages of becoming a thought leader in anything is you become known for it. You don’t have to seek out customers. They come to you.”

Poll says Gerben should continue to make his practice more efficient and profitable to increase his options. “Then he can decide to raise prices, work less, earn more—or he can lower prices and command the market.”

BEWARE OF TRAPDOORS

Despite the efficiencies he’s already created, Gerben still finds himself confronting cost-conscious small-business owners who frequently weigh his services against online boilerplate offerings promising to process trademark applications without legal oversight.

“There are a lot of trapdoors in the process,” says Gerben, who refutes the notion that trademark law is a commodity. “This is complex enough that the average person has no idea what they’re doing and can really cause themselves a problem.”

Gerben’s focused formula continues to yield robust results, with his year-over-year revenue up more than 25 percent through the third quarter. Meanwhile, outside trends appear to be working mostly in his favor, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Even with a dip during the height of the recession, applications for all classes of trademarks hit 352,051 in 2009, a 36 percent increase since 2002.

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