A few weeks ago, we (Bellefield) were invited to share our experiences as legal technology entrepreneurs with the newly-formed startup accelerator at the University of Pittsburgh, The Blast Furnace.
To know us is to know that we are proud Pitt alumni and even more proud legal technology entrepreneurs. At this stage in our careers, we’re often asked to speak about our experiences in entrepreneurship. In telling these stories we’ve found that there are two sides of the story. There’s the often told story about success - the one that appears on LinkedIn or in a Bio. And then there’s the ‘real ‘ story---the story that entrepreneurs rarely tell of how difficult it is to achieve success. Sometimes the real story is a horror story, a road that is anything but direct.
In living this story with my co-founders, I’ve come up with 10 principles for building a successful startup in legal technology - and it’s not all roses and poetry.
#1: Having just a product means NOTHING.
That is, your product has no relevance if you don’t market and sell it. With our first company we pretty much pioneered SaaS for law firms. Arguably, we had product that was so good that you didn’t even need to “sell it.” Not only was the value proposition there, but the technology was incredible. Buyers were just going to snatch it out of our hands. Right? No. It took a lot more than planned to get the first couple dozens of customers. At that point, we understood, that despite how smart we thought we were, and despite our ability to overcome any obstacle, without sales, your product means nothing. Although as founders “you are always selling”, you need to build a sales organization.
#2: Everyday, dress appropriately to go to the battlefield.
Every morning, you are not dressing to go to work like most people do, you are dressing to go to the battlefield. Yes! Make sure you wear your tough skin jeans, and put your ego in your pocket, and, of course, be ready to wear multiple hats. Who might you meet on the battlefield? Competition, financial obligations, and personal priorities will all compete for your time, focus, energy, and solutions. Be ready, each and every day.
#3 Be laser focused.
Focus is everything. Learn to say “no” and say it often. Distractions are plentiful and everybody has an idea to make your product better. When doing a startup, focus is your best currency. Staying focused is critical in every aspect of a startup lifecycle, from product development all the way to marketing and sales.
#4 It’s OK to make mistakes.
Mistakes are inevitable, just make sure none are fatal and that you learn from them. It all goes along with taking calculated risks.
#5 Don’t walk in looking for the door.
Don't make an ‘Exit Strategy’ the goal of your startup. There is no exit without a great entrance. Instead of daydreaming on multiples, get to work and devote all your energy to building a product/service that people love and want to use. You will be more productive there.
#6 Choosing a partner is a “make it” or “break it.”
At the beginning, we all tend to be shortsighted and believe nothing ever is going to happen. And this is one of the biggest mistakes we can do when building a startup, choosing the wrong partner. Don't just pick your friend or someone you like. Choose a partner where skillsets are balanced.
#7 You need an attorney or legal advisor.
Early on, I thought everyone would play fair. As an early stage startup, delaying to engage legal help can be a make or break it. Get your house in order from the start and get an attorney you trust.
#8 Have the endurance and patience to hang on through tough times.
There will be tough times, many times, you can trust on that. Don’t give up too soon and remember “this too shall pass.” I use this acronym as my mantra: “Hang On Pain Ends= HOPE.”
#9 There are no shortcuts.
When you think there are shortcuts, life has a way of making you pay for it. So suck it up and do it the right way from the beginning. Take your time and do it right from the start, and you’ll be satisfied later!
#10 You only have so much time, so choose wisely.
There are endless ways to spend your time, however, time is a limited resource. Be mindful of how you are spending your time. After all, you’ll never get back the hour that you wasted on Facebook!
As you might imagine, my co-founder Dani has his own set of lessons learned from our startup experiences. Here are Dani’s two most important lessons for entrepreneurs:
#1: Be memorable.
In college, Dani found a unique way of introducing himself to his professors and classmates that has caused people to remember him 20 years later. The lesson for entrepreneurs is to stand out from the noise in a memorable way. Seize every opportunity to distinguish yourself and stand out from the crowd. Dani is a technologist and he understands the difficulty and value of being able to stand out from the crowd.
#2: Build your own reputation.
The way that you represent yourself and your business is important to your success. Dani emphasized the right way to represent yourself and how it makes a difference on how you succeed. For those of us in the legal industry, we know that it is a small world (after all!) and firms talk.Your reputation as a vendor travels quickly and can work for you or against you. The reputation that we built with eBillingHub helped us tremendously when we launched Bellefield.
Read more about the startup lessons shared by Dani and I in Blast Furnace Director, Greg Coticchia’s LinkedIn Post here. You can also check out our slideshow: Graduating Pitt and Doing a Startup.
What have you learned either as a startup or legal technology professional? Share your experiences in the comments section below.