Second in a series on my entrepreneur-lawyer journey. Read part one here.
After two years in finance, I began to realize that I was more interested in how my financial clients built and grew their businesses than how they planned to retire and wind down those businesses. That notion was compounded by the fact that the LSAT I took during my last year of undergrad was about to expire, so I decided to apply to UALR law school and attend part time. I never wanted to practice law, but rather thought that I could accelerate the acquisition of sophisticated financial clients if I was a lawyer. We were already selling and advising clients on advanced corporate structures, tax implications, and other financial trusts, many times with the involvement of estate planning attorneys. I thought it natural to simply become an attorney and cut out the middleman. I had no intention of practicing law, though, and told my fellow law students and professors as much.
Clerking and Startups
I did well in law school, eventually graduating within the top 10 of my class. As a result, I was able to clerk at almost every one of the top law firms in Alabama during my law school stint. I mainly did this for the good pay that they offered, but more so to reassure myself that I didn’t want to pursue a legal career.
I learned a lot about the practice of law from a large firm perspective. I still remember my first job interview with one of these firms where I asked them about how they decided on attorneys making partner. They proceeded to tell me that the track was at least seven years and then depended on performance, etc. My response to this was to ask the interviewers what would happen if I managed to simply “kill it” in regards to client acquisition in the first year or two. I wanted to know if that could expedite the partner process. The response that I got to this question still leaves a bad taste in my mouth: laughter. It was like they were insulted that I would even imagine such a scenario. I’ve since learned that the go-getter mentality is better received in the plaintiff’s bar, and in small firm practice where client acquisition is the lifeblood of the firm.
During the entire process of clerking and law school and trying to maintain my financial services business, I also met another classmate that was very similar to me. He had a computer company, was a computer science major, and also had no intention of being a lawyer. A kindred soul. Almost immediately after meeting at orientation, we decided to meet every week after night classes and see if we could start and build a technology company from thin air.
As an initial benchmark, we entered a statewide business plan competition called the Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup. Our company was called “ThanksBud” and we planned on being the eBay of the services industry: a real-time marketplace to buy and sell services. We won the competition, and went to Las Vegas to compete in the Tri-State tournament, where we placed 2nd. By then, we had a working prototype, and saw Vegas as a platform to hone our business plan, executive summary, financials, and elevator. We moved straight from competition mode to development mode, spending every class hunched down in the back, coding on our laptops and trying to avoid getting called on. We met once a week in the library and coded then, too. On occasion, we met at our clerkship offices and worked all night. The experience was filled with extreme levels of excitement and matched levels of anxiety, the entrepreneurial equivalent of heroine to a junkie. We went along this path for about 12 months, including the business plan competition, until we were finally in a position to pitch to investors with our vetted business plan completed and working prototype in hand.
Little did we realize that even with all of our hard work and excitement and progress… we would receive one of the most soul crushing lessons that I will likely ever receive in my lifetime. As soon as we began contacting venture capital firms and other potential angel and seed funding investors, another company launched. It was amazingly similar to our company with one added component: it was fully funded and backed by Sears. Every VC and angel investor we spoke to loved the idea and company but, during the due diligence process, bowed out because they didn’t want to “match checkbooks with Sears.” We were devastated and, after long, depressing conversations, decided to kill our baby.
In retrospect, I can appreciate how much I learned through this experience.
The first course of learning was in the business plan process. I learned about financials, projections, competitive analytics, and all those other fun things that so many small business owners fail to consider before starting a new business. I learned how to organize and plan for success and growth and how to budget for costs both expected and unexpected. In addition to that, I learned a ton about web development and custom application development, a skillset that was not taught in the classroom during undergrad.
Course two of learning from eating crow is the pivot. When we began that venture, I had exposed myself very little to other startups, the tech startup culture, and other success stories in similar type companies. But, since then, I’ve read up and learned one thing above all else in the startup world: most companies fail. Failure is simply an opportunity to fix something and learn before your next attempt. The majority of super-successful technology startups that I read about actually started out doing something completely different than what they ended up being known for doing. Many of them started out doing something that wasn’t even closely related to the end product.
It’s amazing how elastic entrepreneurs are and how willing they are to gather data, access, and iterate until, at long last, they achieve success. If I could go back and do “ThanksBud” again, that would be the thing I’d do differently. I would not quit, but rather, learn and then iterate.