Often, companies have to adapt to succeed. RPX (NASDAQ:RPXC) is currently facing a tough situation in which its subscription-based patent protection business has seen sales start to decline, but its newer discovery services business has attracted new clients and helped reignite overall growth for the company.

Coming into Tuesday's first-quarter earnings report, RPX investors expected slightly declines in year-over-year earnings and only modest revenue growth. RPX's numbers were better than most expected, but they still involve what could become a transformation for the company away from its original core mission. Let's take a closer look at RPX and what it said about its recent results and future prospects.

Courtroom from jury perspective.

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RPX scores a win

RPX's first-quarter results were encouraging on the whole. Revenue climbed by about 3.5% to $82.5 million, which was better than the roughly $81 million figure that most investors were expecting. RPX's bottom line was even stronger, with net income of $5.99 million climbing by more than 40% from year-ago figures. After making typical exclusions for extraordinary items, adjusted earnings came in at $0.19 per share, which was well above the $0.12 per share consensus forecast among those following the stock.

RPX is still working to expand its patent protection business. The company had net spending of $31.1 million on acquiring patents during the quarter, with 19 separate patent transactions. Gross patent spend was roughly double the net figure, at $62.8 million. The net amount was almost twice what RPX spent in the first quarter of 2016, although the numbers have been quite volatile from quarter to quarter.

Looking more closely at RPX's segments reveals some ongoing trends. Subscription-based revenue for patent protection was down 6%, but revenue from the Inventus legal discovery management provider jumped more than 70%. Discovery still makes up only about a fifth of RPX's total sales, but if the pace of growth continues, it will quickly become critically important to the company's overall growth trajectory. Yet it's also important to note that the discovery sales figure has remained relatively constant over the past couple of quarters, and that could signal an end to year-over-year growth as soon as next quarter without further business expansion.

CEO Martin Roberts reiterated the core mission that the company has. "RPX made a solid start to 2017," Roberts said, "with top and bottom line results in line with our expectations." The CEO noted that "as the nature of patent risk has evolved in recent years, we continue to develop new services to address that risk."

What's ahead for RPX?

RPX is still enthusiastic about its growth prospects. The company boasts more than 300 clients in its patent segment, with patent risk management services to more than 400 companies.

Yet RPX's immediate guidance still raises doubts. Second-quarter projections show sales of $79 million to $82 million, and adjusted net income of $5 million to $7 million implies earnings in the range of $0.10 to $0.14 per share. With investors looking for $84 million in revenue and $0.20 per share in earnings, the guidance could be disappointing.

Still, RPX kept its full-year 2017 guidance unchanged. Total sales of between $315 million and $344 million should produce adjusted net income of $31 million to $42 million, or $0.62 to $0.84 per share in earnings. Sales from discovery services of $70 million to $79 million imply an end to significant growth in the near future, which could hurt sentiment among investors looking for more growth.

RPX also announced some leadership changes. Robert Heath will move from the CFO role to become chief strategy officer, with David Anderson assuming CFO responsibilities. The move should free up Heath to spend all of his time working on strategy, which will be crucial in determining the company's path forward.

RPX investors didn't immediately react to the news, and the stock stayed in unchanged in the after-hours market following the announcement. Yet without a better-defined strategy, RPX isn't inspiring the confidence that long-term investors want to see from the innovative company.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends RPX. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.