Michelle Fisher (IEOR ‘86) is the CEO and Founder of Blaze Mobile, a 10 year-old Berkeley company developing mobile commerce, health care, banking, and advertising solutions. She has successfully raised millions of dollars in private financing for Blaze and has nearly fifty patents pending. Michelle has always had an innovative spirit — she sent a company her first product sketch when she was just 10 years old — and brought her entrepreneurial mindset to large companies before launching her own successful startup.
After graduating from Berkeley IEOR, Michelle went on to earn a master’s degree in operations research at Stanford and then considered starting her own business. She opted instead to get more experience first by working in large firms.
“I didn’t think I was ready financially or experience-wise,” Michelle said of her ambition to start her own company after graduation.
She went to work for Pacific Bell (now AT&T) where she learned more programming techniques, analytical skills — and customer service skills, “Ultimately I ended up working in a customer-facing role. One day a sales person saw me giving a presentation and thought I was in her sales group. She said ‘who are you? Are you on my sales team?’ and I said ‘no I’m not on your sales team’ but she wanted me to be, so I became a technical manager in her group. There I learned a lot about interfacing with people and customers.”
Michelle continued to gain experience working with people — and at night and on the weekends continued to work on her own inventions and innovations, “During the day I am in this position where I would evangelize using a data network to connect branches and fast food restaurants, and it occurred to me that I should be using this for multi-media distribution. So, that was one idea I had… and I got $2 million in funding [from Pacific Bell]. So, my path started out with pitching ideas inside of big companies and getting them funded. I had the safety net of a large corporation and didn’t have to worry about raising money.”
After successfully pitching and developing products at Pacific Bell, Michelle thought that it might be the right time to start her own venture — until she received an offer that she couldn’t refuse, “I got a call from Microsoft… and they offered me a job to help them launch their online network in Europe. So, I thought — what I was doing in California was great, but it was one state — and if I go to Microsoft, I can learn how to build products on a global scale.
"When I think about the patent process and how hard it was — if I hadn’t gone through such a rigorous program at Cal — I don’t think I would have had the patience and perseverance to get through it."
“I ended up staying [at Microsoft] for 10 years and launching a new product every year. They were very generous from the standpoint of letting me move to different groups after I finished a product. I didn’t work in the traditional groups of office or windows — which would have bored me — because I had this passion for creating something new. So, I got to help launch new online products and it was sort of run like a startup. After doing that for a long time and travelling a lot I decided — okay now I am ready.”
After years of traveling the world for Microsoft and pitching and developing multi-million dollar products, you might think starting your own company would be easy. But Michelle realized that it was different to go for it all on your own, “I still had a bit of nervousness. When I went to sign my lease for an office in Berkeley, I was thinking — wow I have a mortgage and now I’m signing a lease for an office. So, it still gives you pause — because if it didn't pan out, what was I going to do?”
So, Michelle started Blaze Mobile and filed three patents in the field of near field communications (NFC) — now a well-known technology allowing wireless payments and other applications — but in 2005, it was a relatively new idea. The patent process is notorious for being long and arduous, and this is where Michelle believes her IEOR training really kicked in.
“My favorite class [at Berkeley IEOR] was A Programming Language (APL). It taught me a lot of great analytical skills… I didn’t know how valuable it was at the time. What I didn’t see was that I was sharpening my analytical and problem solving skills. The other dynamic — the ability to have patience and persistence, was a by-product of the course work. When I think about the patent process and how hard it was — if I hadn’t gone through such a rigorous program at Cal — I don’t think I would have had the patience and perseverance to get through it, because it was hard,” said Michelle.
But Michelle did persevere — and now has nearly fifty patents pending and is an expert on the patent process. See Michelle’s tips for persisting through the patent process below.
When asked if she thinks that her journey should be a model for current IEOR students who want to be entrepreneurs, Michelle said, “Everybody’s journey is different. I don’t want to dictate what would work for one person. It just depends on your situation. In my case, I knew I had to fund it myself. I wasn’t ready to do that after I got out of Stanford. I didn’t have the capital to put into an idea. For me, it was about starting a company when I felt like I had enough things lined up: when I had the confidence, the skillset, and the money saved up. Students in the IEOR program — if you have a great idea — today the barriers to entry are lower. You can develop software so much easier, faster, and cheaper than you could 10 years ago. All the devices have basically unlimited computing power. The capital costs aren’t as high as well. The flipside is that because the barriers to entry are lower, there can be a lot of people in your space.”
So, it’s clear that there are many paths to becoming an entrepreneur and Michelle’s story represents one way. But what one quality that Michelle agrees that many entrepreneurs do share, is the mindset to always be thinking of how to create something new, “I don’t wake up thinking I’m going to carve out an hour to be innovative today. You are always thinking about how to make something better, cheaper, and faster.”
Michelle’s tips for persisting through the patent process:
- The in-person interview with the examiner is critical, especially if you are using new technology or have an invention that not too many people are aware of. The examiners have to rely on the words that are on your application — that’s all. They can’t go to your website, they don’t watch your YouTube videos. They can’t look at your tweets. They can only rely on the words on the piece of paper. And they can’t be an expert in everything. There are 7,000 examiners in DC. There are 8,000,000 patents that have been granted to date. There are tens of millions waiting in queue just waiting to be seen by the examiners. They have a limited amount of time to review your application. So, if they can’t figure it out in that time they have allowed, they just reject it. So, scheduling an in-person interview is one of the best practices. If you can’t afford to go to DC, now there is a Silicon Valley office. So, you can just drive down to San Jose and schedule it.
- Review the prior art. Whenever you file a patent, the examiners are going to look for other similar patents that have been granted. And that is called “prior art”. So, if there is someone who has invented your idea they will say ‘sorry I can’t give you the patent because John Doe invented it’. But sometimes when they read John Doe’s patent, they misunderstand it. So it’s incumbent upon the inventor to read the prior art and write a response. The clearer you can write the response and make the examiner understand how your invention is different than the prior art, that goes a long way to helping you to get your patent granted. That was one of the other biggest keys I learned is just investing the time.
- Carve out time. Reading prior art is not the most exciting thing to do. Especially, when the examiner cites 2 or 3 pieces of prior art and each one is 25 pages duration. Depending on the field, it can be very dense. And not everyone writes very well. You’d be surprised at some of the things you read. So, you have to budget time to read the prior art. And maybe you have to read it in multiple sittings. Because it may be very dense technically or written poorly — it may not be something you understand right away.