John Hankins: Hitting an Entrepreneurial Home Run
Several years after his retirement from McDermott, John Hankins heard about the Astros sign stealing scandal in baseball and had a revelation. By combining varied career experiences, he created PitchCom, a push-button transmitter currently being used in Major League Baseball for covert on-field communication between players.
Tell us about PitchCom. How did you come up with the idea?
After I retired from McDermott in late 2013, I started doing stage mentalism – mindreading and magic onstage. In doing so, I learned about covert communication and how to use devices to control sound remotely.
When the Astros sign stealing scandal broke in 2019, I used my 35 years as a patent attorney, along with experiences as an electrical engineer, baseball fan and mentalist, to come up with a solution I thought would work for players and fans: A push-button transmitter that allows the catcher to communicate with the pitcher without requiring headphones.
What was it like to start your company?
After I had the idea, the first thing I did was contact my good friend Craig Filicetti. He develops mentalism products and sound equipment. We worked together to create this product for baseball.
I wrote and filed the patent myself, and we sent it to the MLB. Then the pandemic hit. We managed to secure a meeting with two executives in October 2020, and when we demonstrated the product for them, they said, “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
Following safety testing and minor league testing during the 2021 season, the MLB took PitchCom to spring training in 2022. Within three weeks, 27 out of 30 teams were using it.
How did your role as a McDermott partner in our patent group impact your business strategy?
I drew on several key learnings from my time at McDermott:
- •Keep expenses tight: Only expand as needed and as the market demands it. Our company is still a small operation, just my partner and two others who handle software and design. We also use some outside contractors.
- •Be client-focused: Understand their needs and create solutions to satisfy those needs.
- •Bring in an expert: I came up with the concept, and Craig is the expert in this space. Our combined abilities have helped us develop and sustain a successful product.
- •Explore all opportunities: We’re looking at developing new products such as wrist displays, and expanding into foreign markets and different levels of baseball such as high school and travel teams. By doing that, we can expand our market from 30 teams in the MLB to 30,000 teams.
How did your time at McDermott inspire you to start this venture?
In developing this product, Craig and I had no safety net – if the MLB didn’t like it, we would have nothing to show for the work. But we knew we had a good product and took a chance on it. That ability to take a calculated risk comes from my time at the Firm.
How has the McDermott network impacted your career? Will you be able to use our Alumni Connect networking platform as you expand PitchCom?
I’ve gotten great advice from Ahsan Shaikh and some of my old partners who are now McDermott alumni, including one who is doing patent prosecution for us. I’ve also contacted litigation partners at McDermott to help handle some of the issues that come with starting a new company.
I’ll certainly consider the McDermott alumni network for potential talent in the future. The ability to post open roles and share with current lawyers and alumni is a great benefit.
What piece of advice do you have for other entrepreneurial lawyers?
If you have an idea, don’t be afraid to go for it. There are so many elements of legal practice in a large firm that will help you in the entrepreneurial space.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
I’m treating myself to a golf school retreat – three days of intensive training with one of the top professionals in the country. I also plan to visit my daughter in Boston, where she goes to college. We’ll get tickets to take in a Red Sox game.