In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and co-host Tracy Osborn answer a number of listener questions on topics including funded competition, growing an email newsletter audience, white-labeling and more.
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On the show we have several different formats. Oftentimes we have tactics we discuss, we do interviews, founder hot seats, and this week we have listener questions. Questions sent by you, the listeners, over the past couple of months. I’ve been mixing up the formats as you’ve noticed and the feedback I’ve heard is that the tactical interviews and the interviews of the agony of defeat have been really well-received in addition that the listener question episodes tend to be listener favorites.
I want to get back in the groove of doing those and today, I welcome a co-host, Tracy Osborn, to come back and answer questions again. She joined me about six or eight episodes ago answer a few questions. Before we dive into those, there’s been a few comments on startupsfortherestofus.com website. Go to startupsfortherestofus.com, we have a new design, you can check it out.
On episode 456, we had a comment from Karen that said, “Just popping in after listening to this episode to say how much I value your podcast. I’ve been listening for quite a few years. As other shows have come and gone, Startups for the Rest of Us continues to be a staple for me. I’ve really enjoyed the mixing up of the format lately. It’s been good to hear from different people. In saying that and as much as I’ve enjoyed and got something out of each episode, I would not really be keen on having the podcast moved to an interview format every week.” I actually agree with that.
“I always enjoy the listener question episodes and get a lot of value out of those. The episode that really left a lasting impression on me was the one with Mike just before he started his hiatus. The way you skillfully weaved your questions in and around Mike’s comments and your observations were very eye-opening and I’m sure it resonated with a lot of listeners, too. I would love to see more of that format, like a one-off mastermind session with the SaaS founder, where it explores a specific challenge that they are currently experiencing.
No matter the format of this podcast is, it continues to be a cut above the rest and a big thank you from this listener for everything.” Thank you so much, Karen, and another listener chimed in and said, “Plus one on that.” I appreciate the feedback on that. It’s super helpful just to help guide things, to look at doing some more hot seats in the future.
In episode 457, I answered a few questions. One was about starting a market place and TJ wrote in and asked about two-sided marketplaces and how he should start it. Shawn the Wolf chimed in and said, “Great show. For two-sided marketplaces, I would suggest, number one, populate the list with the basics for free to satisfy your consumer funnel. Number two, give all artisans a basic free listing with an option to be removed. Number three, find sweeteners to sell to the artisans, to give the individual listings a competitive edge.” The sweeteners he lists are enhanced listings, ads at the top of a given page in their category, subsites inside of your website, and prospect information volunteered from consumers can go the artist for a fee.
Thank you so much for that Shawn. TJ, thank you in the comments and I appreciate everybody coming in. As a community, we obviously have so much more brain power and experience than just a podcast host or two, sitting on the microphone each week.
Also, if you haven’t got your ticket to MicroConf Europe, it’s in late October this year, head to microconfeurope.com. We still have some tickets left. It’s in Croatia and it looks over the Adriatic Sea. Every hotel room has a view of the Adriatic, it’s very nice. Consider doing that, hanging out with 120 or 130 of your closest founder friends. If you didn’t hear the save the date, MicroConf US next year is in Minneapolis and it’s April 19th through the 23rd. We’re pulling it out of Las Vegas this year.
We’ve actually been trying to do that for the last several years, in the overwhelming feedback from both folks who attended folks who don’t, that they would prefer seeing it in a different city. It happens to be in Minneapolis, this year, April 19th through the 23rd, that’s growth and then starter. Check out microconf.com. Enter your email address to hear about when tickets go on sale. We do expect the conference is to sell out, so you want to get on the email list, if you’re at all interested in joining us. I believe we’re expecting to sell tickets here in September. With that let’s dive into some listener questions.
Tracy, thanks for being a glutton for punishment and joining me on the show again.
Tracy: Happy to be back.
Rob: I’m stoked to answer some listener questions with you again today. Our first question is a voicemail. As always voicemails go to the top of the stack. This question is from a founder who has an idea or is working on a product and a funded startup with the same idea shut down in 2016 and he’s curious how to process that.
Ryan: Okay, question about a strange experience and what you think would be a good way to go forward. I’ve been working on an app for about a year. It’s a search engine your personal computing history, it’s at apse.io. The acronym is short for A Personal Search Engine.
Last week I found out about another company building almost exactly what I’ve been working on. The thing is, it is a $20 million round at 2016 and also shut down later in 2016. If I were reading the press coverage of marketing materials, they might as well be talking about my app. I can’t find any reason for the shutdown, and attempts to contact people who worked on it have been unsuccessful.
I’ve been working on the project solo for about a year. I have no idea they have existed until a few days ago. I’m bootstrapped and never released a working product so I’m not at danger of going under myself. My focus right now is I’m growing the customer base. What do you think I should do now that I know all this? Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks, Ryan Fox.
Rob: Interesting question. What do you think, Tracy? What are your thoughts on this?
Tracy: Super interesting, especially since $20 million is not pocket change and the fact that it shut down within the same year. Then he said he tried to contact the people running it and hasn’t heard back. There’s a lot of very suspicious things going on that lead me to think that the company shutting down was not due to the product, but probably due to something internal. I don’t know if you have the same impression that I do.
Rob: I don’t. It does sound a little weird, but frankly, if you’re going to raise that much money, then you raise it at probably $100 million valuation. It tends to be $80 million or $100 million because you typically sell 15%-25% of your company. If it’s a standard round and they were definitely go big or go home, and go big or go home is basically spend all your money in 18 months.
The fact that they spend it all, they probably hired all the way up and try to do a big marketing push, so I don’t know that it sounds suspicious, but it definitely sounds like a typical Silicon Valley play, I guess.
Tracy: I wish that they were able to contact the founders. I’ve done that for my apps, where like my old WeddingLovely app, I was able to talk to a few other founders who did something very similar, but shut down the company. In those cases, I was lucky that I was able to get a hold of them and they’re excited to tell me all the things that went wrong because there are done and over it and moved on.
He said he only heard about it a few days ago, so maybe there could be some contact. There could be valuable information if he’s able to contact those founders and be like, “Hey, above board, what happened? Is there anything to be worried about?” If that doesn’t happen, in general, I feel like it’s not something that should stop the caller from starting a company.
Rob: No, not at all. I wouldn’t be discouraged in the least. Just because a venture-funded company couldn’t make it, that can almost be a good sign at times. If they were burning through $1 million a month, hired a team of 50 people or whatever it was they were doing, a lot of ideas don’t work that way. A lot of ideas maybe they take years to do or maybe it’ll never make more than $1 million a year, but that’s a great full-time living for an individual. I don’t want to speak to this particular idea. I haven’t looked into personal search engines or really what’s it about, but just the question is really about a venture-funded company went out of business, how should I feel about that? I wouldn’t feel bad about it all.
I would feel the exact same way I do today as I did yesterday before knowing it. The other thing I would say is I wholeheartedly agree with you that getting in contact with someone from that company no matter what, if it’s the founders or if it’s an old salesperson or whatever, I have done this multiple times. Oftentimes you need to send a lot of cold email, LinkedIn outreach, Twitter DM’s, all the things to get a hold of someone, but once you get a hold of one person, they will often refer you to other folks. I would spend more time on that than you probably think, a judicious use of your time.
If they raised that much money, they had to have had, at some point, quite a few employees. I would head to LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google and try to figure out, “Hey, who was a former employee of this company,” and reach out as like, “Hey, I’m a founder of this thing, you worked on it, and I wondered if 30 minutes your time just to talk to me about something.” It works pretty well. Again, I wouldn’t stick just to the founders, although that would be ideal, but that conversation could be super valuable.
Tracy: Yeah, very valuable. I’ve used in the past myself. It’s so great because there’s some things that you probably could learn that you didn’t know about just from looking at from the outside. Try to do the internal investigation, try to talk to someone in the company. Also, just investigate everything that’s public, see what they did, see the things that they released and see what you can learn from what they did that apparently didn’t work, to see what you can learn from that.
Rob: Thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful. Our next question is another voicemail. It’s about growing an email newsletter audience.
Ben: Hey Rob and Mike. My name is Ben DeFrancisco and I run a small consultancy here in Philadelphia doing mobile web and increasingly crypto- and Blockchain-related work. I fell down the crypto rabbit hole many years ago, so it’s been awhile for me to watch you enter the mainstream consciousness so much over the last couple of years.
About a year ago, I started running a weekly newsletter covering technical topics in the crypto world. It’s called The Blockchain and you can check it out by going to newsletter.buildblockchain.tech. I post about it on Twitter and sometimes on LinkedIn and it has grown steadily but slowly over the past year. I have excellent open rates at 50% and I often get people writing back to me with a positive feedback. I think generally I’m doing something right in terms of the content. Still, the list size itself is rather modest.
My question is, how do I grow a newsletter audience? I often hear about people talking about building a list, but there’s no viral component to a newsletter and at a certain point, it seems like posting to social media has diminishing returns. Are there some tactics and strategies that I could be employing?
For context, I don’t have anything I’m trying to sell to this list right now, though in the back of my head, I can imagine launching a book, a course, or even a software product down the road. For the moment, I’m just focused on finding and growing my audience. An audience that has interests and aspirations that align with my knowledge and skills. Thanks in advance for any insights you can offer on how to do this.
Rob: What are your thoughts on this Tracy?
Tracy: This is a really good question and it’s funny when watching the last few years as newsletters have become more and more of a thing as compared to blogs. It does have that difficulty in sharing something that’s over email, and after I read this question beforehand, I went through all of my favorite newsletters that I personally subscribe to and be like, “Okay, how do other people do it?”
I feel like number one, the way I’ve found newsletters and the way all the ones I’ve been reading or have been doing it, in the newsletters, they’ll have asks, saying, “Okay, if you want to support this newsletter, please share this newsletter on social media. You can sponsor the newsletter,” and the other ways of helping out. It’s just being really clear in the newsletter, may be at the top and maybe at the bottom. Just give people an opportunity and remind them that, “Hey, if you’re enjoying this content, here’s a way to share it.”
Rob: Yeah, that’s a good approach. There’s a lot you can do with this and it depends a lot on your constraints. Do you have more time or do you have more money? Something that I would think about if you have this newsletter, you’re providing valuable content and with 50% open rates, that tells me that you’re writing engaging content, people are getting value out of it because they’re continuing to open it. What I would look for is opportunities to get your newsletter or your brand out to a broader audience.
You’re right, sharing on social is getting it out to your audience and maybe get lucky and three people will retweet and then you get it out to their audience, but that is not a predictable way to grow a subscriber base. I would think about approaches like this to reach larger audiences or audiences you currently don’t have reach into.
One is you’re already creating content. Is there a way to either repurpose some of that or create new content as guest posts? Whether you approach Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, any of the crypto, there’s tons of crypto sites, take the top five or the top 10 and pitch them on, “Hey, I’m a writer. Here’s the quality of my writing. I want to write for you,” and you get a byline or a mention of your site within the article itself. This is a tried and true tactic. It takes time, but that’s one way to get in front of 100,000 crypto enthusiast, by being on the number one crypto news site.
A second one would be to do a podcast tour. If you’re an expert and you have all this experience and you can say, “I’m an expert because of this,” or, “I’m an expert because I’ve interviewed a bunch of experts,” and going to a podcast tour and of course you mention your brand while you’re doing that, expose it to new people.
Doing interviews. It looks like you might already be doing some interviews. I’m wondering if you are gently asking for the interviewees to social share when the post goes live. That is something I would consider. I wouldn’t do it heavy handed, but if one out of three shares it, that exposes you to a new audience. People say, “Wow, this content was really good. I want to find more like that,” and on and on. It’s the same playbook that I would say for any startup.
You’re building the list to some end, what are the marketing approaches you could go down? SEO is another one if you have a larger footprint on your website, you ought to value it. Is SEO too hard in the crypto space? Do you have the time, the money to do it? Maybe or maybe not, but that’s something I would personally value as it has such a nice fly wheel of traffic if you’re giving something away like an open source library or something else that folks aren’t able to get anywhere else. Everybody links there, then you get the SEO juice and then suddenly you triple your newsletter subscribers.
Another way that I would think about and this comes back to that time versus money thing. If I had more money than time to devote to this, I would have absolutely seen people grow email newsletters with ads. With Facebook ads, Instagram ads, Google ads may be a stretch, but ads in other email newsletters.
That depends. If you’re not monetizing at all, then that’s probably a tough justification, but that would then lead me to think about longer term, “How am I going to monetize this?” whether it’s with affiliate stuff or ads or whatever. That allows you to then know, “Oh, per subscriber, I make X dollars per month or X cents per month, that means I can pay this much for a new subscriber.” That’s where you’re going to get to if you’re going to grow it in a sustainable fashion.
The last thing I’d say is you mentioned that your URL is newsletter.buildblockchain.tech to sign up, I would just move it to the homepage. You actually have it, you have a drip put just there on the homepage, it’s buildblockchain.tech. Go there to sign up and it’s just less for people to remember.
Tracy: Yeah, it all makes sense. It basically comes down to, make it easy for people to sign up, make it easy for people to share, and put yourself out there so that more people will know about you, so they have opportunities to share what you’re doing. If you can, then you can try using ads, that’s the step-by-step process.
Rob: That’s right. Using ads is dangerous to do early on. It’ll help you move faster, but you need some budget to do it and you can churn through money if you don’t have any way to monetize or any idea of how you’re monetizing. Again, if you know the lifetime value of a subscriber, then this becomes a no brainer.
This is how Noah Kagan built the AppSumo less up to three quarters to a million or a million people was by running ads because he knew what the value of a subscriber was. This is one way that Brennan Dunn grew his Double Your Freelancing list, was using ads. It’s doable, it’s just a matter of what are your constraints, do you have the time, do you have the interest, and how big do you want to grow it?
Tracy: Yeah. Try doing step one to three first and see what success you can do for these “free ways” of growing your list and then using that as a cherry on top.
Rob: I hope that was helpful Ben. Thanks for the question.
Tracy: Our next question, by James Barnhartus, says, “Hi Rob and Mike. Thanks for all the great insights you share on the podcast. I came across your podcast about a month ago after starting my own startup journey. I’ve already learned so much from you guys. The knowledge and experience you share is amazing and has really stoked my excitement for entrepreneurship.
My question has to do with the process of transitioning from a consulting-based model to a true SaaS model. My co-founder is a consultant who helps small businesses better manage their operations. One of the tools he uses in his consulting is an app that he put together in Microsoft Access to help his clients find and track their operations. I’ve been brought on as a technical co-founder to turn this Access app into a SaaS product.
The SaaS app would initially continue to be used as a tool for my co-founder’s consulting work with the goal of eventually moving towards offering it as a standalone product. I was wondering, what is your take on this approach? Are there any benefits we should be sure to take advantage of or pitfalls we should try to avoid?
On the one hand, I see a potential advantage in the fact that we already have an initial user base in his current customers, but on the other hand, I am wondering if the fact that our initial users are using the app and a consulting context might lead to unanticipated headaches when we try to scale. Thanks again for the great podcast, James Barnhartus.
Rob: That’s a good question. I’ve seen folks do this well and I’ve seen them do it poorly. The first thing that I would make sure is that you have the IP, that your partner owns the intellectual property to the thing and that the Access app was not built under a contract that if you forked a SaaS app out off of it, that somehow that comes back to bite you in the future. That is just something that you have to clear up and make sure you have. The pitfalls I would avoid or the big one is assuming that because he has had to build this for a number of clients, that everyone needs it, or that there is a market need for this.
I would validate that other people need it, that it is sellable at a purchase price that you want to sell it at, and that you can reach them somehow in some type of scalable fashion. Obviously, there are companies that want to pay for this, but if each sale cycle is 6-12 months long and people are only willing to pay $100 a month for it, it becomes a less viable business. I would be having a lot of conversations before I went off and build a SaaS app with his existing clients.
Also then, where is a list of another hundred clients that are your potential clients that are like these other ones? How do I get in conversation with them? It’s easy, you’re not selling anything. You say, “Hey, we are building this thing,” you just tell the story of what you’re doing, “Would you be willing to have a 30-minute phone call with me?”
If you send 100 emails, maybe get 10 yeses and that will be tremendously educational for you to ask the questions of, “What are you using today? How much would you be willing to pay for this?” You pitch it, “Hey, would you be willing to pay $1000 a month?” or whatever the numbers are. There’s a lot more that I would do before I wrote a line of code on that SaaS app.
I do think that there’s a big benefit to doing this and that your partner or co-founder obviously has a lot of knowledge, institutional knowledge in his head about how this works; that’s good. You guys have built-in testimonials from the start. You could even ask the consulting clients if you can use their logo from day one, even though you don’t technically have product customers, you do have consulting customers or clients and you have logos and testimonials which is a nice thing to have from the start. You can also get their input of course to help shape the direction of the product. That’s my hot take, my initial thoughts on it. What do you think Tracy?
Tracy: I love the fact that there are existing customers that you can ask for help for building this product. I agree with you. This is a place where you can get more information, talk to other customers, and make sure there’s a market before you do any writing of code. As you start building a product, you can go to these existing customers with the MVP and start getting that feedback with people who are already hopefully fans of your co-founder because they’re working with them in that consulting context, and these people can help inform how the standalone product can grow.
Having that little bit of help helps an app grow and help the app launch, especially if you can get to a point where it’s just good enough that then you can start taking that elsewhere. Not building a full-on product, but getting just to that MVP, so then you can start talking with other people outside of this consulting contact. I think it’s going to be a huge help and it’s a really good sign to have those extra customers, but I completely agree with you that there are some pitfalls, as you mentioned, and just to be aware of what you said.
Rob: Yeah, and I was trying to think of the dangers of it being consulting today and how that can impact your mindset. Let’s say you built 10 or 15 existing consulting clients. Is there a danger that they really have a lot of input on shaping the product and they do it in such a way that it makes it less useful to the rest of the industry, or do they want undue influence on it or whatever? These are things you have to navigate. I definitely think this is more of an advantage than a disadvantage for a lot of developers go and built products and then you can’t get anybody to buy and no one will tell you why they want it or won’t pay for it. You’re not going to be in that situation, but they are definitely some things I’d be thinking about as I build this out.
Tracy: This is a process that people have done before. A lot of SaaS apps have come from consultants who realize that there is a need and that they can build something off that need. Of course, there is probably a lot that have failed as well, but this has been done before and some people have had success in it.
Rob: Yeah, and I would consider tweeting out and saying, “Hey, we’re looking to do this. Has anyone done it before so I could ask you some questions?” My guess is typically when we get a question that is this specific, we often the next week get an email from someone saying, “Hey, I did that,” connect me with him.
Rob: Yeah, it’s been cool. It’s like the Startups for the Rest of Us community coming to the aid of one another, which is really, really cool.
Tracy: Yeah, using the community. One of the big secrets for this community is the fact that we can use each other, learn from each other, and help each other out.
All right. We’ll move on to the next one. This has been submitted by Casio. He says, “Hi Mike and Rob. Thanks for providing such a valuable podcast. We have a bootstrap SaaS making low seven figures and ARR. As the founder, I constantly get emails from people interested in white little partnerships. These emails typically come from bigger businesses that are in the industry but don’t offer the feature we are most known for. Other times they come from random people who want to build a similar product but don’t have anything to offer.
Our product is somewhat complex, not rocket science but large like an ERP, HER, et cetera, and we have a brand that is trying to get some recognition in the industry. White labeling on our product would be nontrivial from a technical perspective and I believe it would distract us from building our own brand. I want to know what your general thoughts are about white labeling. These emails are so frequent, I think I’m leaving money on the table. Thank you.”
Rob: This is a good one and it’s common. If you start something that gets traction you will get these emails. My default response to these is very much like the default response to the junior partner in a venture capital firm. You’ll get two or three of those a month as well asking if you want funding and in general the answer is, “Now is not a good time.” These white labeling in general is quite distracting. It is way more technically challenging than most developers or most people think it is. It’s not just tweaking a product and swapping out someone’s logo in the upper left. There’s billing and there is provisioning. I won’t even go into it.
We evaluated that at one point and it is months and months of development work. What’s cool is that if you’re getting these interests, it shows that this industry has interest in this tool. It’s almost like you’re going to get out ahead of these bigger players, they’re trying to hedge their bet, and they’re trying to have the features that you have. To me, white labeling basically devalues your brand and creates a brand for someone else. There are cases in which to do this, but I don’t think that’s a real, kind of MicroConf, Startups for the Rest of Us self-funded move. To me, you are trying to build a brand for the long-term. You’re an ambitious founder. You’re doing low seven figures, huge congrats on that. Most people do not make it that far.
If I were in your shoes, I would not be having these conversations. If you’re curious, maybe respond to one or two of them, and do a call or two, and cap your time at five hours of exploration for two different deals or for two different conversations and see where it goes. I’ve done that, I’ve gone down the road. This is with multiple products, not just Drip and HitTail, but back before there were DotNetInvoice and a couple of others. I would say, for me it was without fail. That doesn’t mean it’s without fail, but it’s going to be a waste of time because you are trying to build a brand that you want to last. To give someone else that brand equity and have to write a bunch of code on top of it, if you already have some figures, you feel like you’re growing, and things are doing relatively well for you, I don’t see why you would entertain this at all.
Tracy: I would agree with you and I’ve done the same thing with WeddingLovely. We had a bunch of white label requests from other companies and I didn’t do that process that you mentioned. I did a few calls with them, with the folks just to see what they wanted, what they are thinking, and what kind of money was involved. Every single time at the end I was like, “That was a waste of time.”
Again, I could be wrong. There’s probably instances out there where this is a good idea, but it’s one of those things, whereas in general, I guess for this audience, it’s going to be more pain than it’s worth, especially if you’re already doing that much in ARR.
Rob, I have a question for you. Is there any situation in which you would think that, that would make it worth it for you? Would it be an upfront contract? What would you think would be the only situation where it would be worth it?
Rob: I was just asking myself the same question in my head. It’s not a blanket “no,” it’s a 99% “no.” What is that 1% or the 5% time you should do it? I’ll go on a little tangent here. There’s a SaaS app that I know of that was in the ESP space. Originally, they were a downloadable software that you installed on your own server. They white labeled for years and no one knew who they were. They grew into the seven figures and then they had to pivot out of that. They decided to pivot out of that and build their own brand. Their software was mature, but they had to build brand equity from scratch. I sat and watched and I thought to myself, how would they have been because their competitors were doing so much better by that time. I thought to myself, how would they have been if they had never done that.
The thing that comes to mind, there was one time that I almost went forth with white labeling. It was in the very early days of Drip and it was with a colleague I knew or a guy I knew who was in a completely separate, very tight vertical. It was a vertical we were not going to sell into. It wasn’t a ton of dev work. It was weeks’ worth of dev work and he was willing to commit to—I don’t remember the numbers—a non-trivial amount of MRR. He had a big email list, it’s a prosumer niche, so it was a really large list and he had a large number of paying customers doing seven figures of ARR with a relatively low-priced product. He was going to email a list and promote it over the course of a year and do webinars.
He was going to really push it in and it seemed like it could add 5K, 10K, or 15K of MRR a few times throughout the year and that was back where that was a substantial amount of money to a company. That was one time where we needed the money. We almost went through with it. I honestly don’t remember. I think it petered off and we were going to do some research.
Eventually, we mutually decided this is not going to work and I don’t regret that. I actually think that would have been a burden. It would have been essentially legacy cruft that we would have had to maintain because within 6-12 months of that, we were growing by 10K MRR a month and it would have been this thing that we had committed to, that we have to maintain, and would have always been like, “What were we thinking?” but at that time, it may have made sense and helped us move faster. That’s the one time I can think of it perhaps working for more of the self-funded indie funded types.
Tracy: The only other thing I can think of—this might not be the self-funded, indie-funded type of people—was when I was evaluating white label partnerships, just one other variable was if that company that wanted me to white label was an acquisition possibility. I have heard stories and some friends where they’ve built a product, they white labeled it for that company, but in the process of white labeling and working with that company, it comes out that it’s just easier if they just get acquired. If you wanted to be acquired, it can be and this can be very risky. This is a very risky way of trying to get an acquisition because things could fall through the white labeling, it could just suck up all your time getting it to work. I have heard instances where people start working the company under a white label product and ended up acquired at the end. If that’s something you might be interested in, that could be a path.
Rob: That’s a good point. It’s with the words that is strategic partnership. You’ll see that with a strategic investment of like, “Hey, big competitor. Number three wants to invest by 10% of the company,” and maybe they’re an acquisition partner long-term. White labeling will be another one, a really tight integration where everything goes back and forth. Before white labeling I would almost vote for a really tight-coupled integration, but you’re right. It’s risky, but I could see that as a play or a reason to do it.
Tracy: All right. Moving on to question from Lee B. Lee says, “Hey Rob and Mike,” had some really nice things to say about you and the podcast. A couple of paragraphs. I’m going to skip that and jump over to the question. Lee, thanks for the wonderful compliments.
Lee says, “Here, to contribute my own question. Is it not uncommon for developers to start at a small company with a reduced salary in exchange for a share of the company? This is what I proposed to two founders of the company where I am now writing software and they’re onboard. They feel reassured I’m in it for the long haul and will feel more confident taking ownership and business decisions along the way. Now, I take it for granted that I will want a lawyer to review any offer before it signed. How does one go about selecting a lawyer who will represent me without being overly aggressive? Googling business lawyers near me is easy enough, but I would like some advice about what questions to ask and what to look for when dealing with a master of the dark arts of law. Thank you again for providing a back catalog of knowledge and advice.”
Rob: Dark arts of law. I like that phrase. That’s a good question and good on you for having a lawyer review it; that’s a good call. The blanket advice I have is upcounsel.com. You start there, you look at the reviews. It’s like Upwork for legal. I have had generally good luck when I try to find someone with an expertise there. The way about it is I don’t want a small-town lawyer who specializes in tax, accounting, to review my startup equity grants, my stock option offer, my employment letter offer. I want someone who is familiar with the startup space so that they know.
Any lawyer can read a document and say, “Yes, legally this is saying this and this means that,” but do they know what the standards are? Do they know how the Silicon Valley treats it? Do they know how people treat it outside of the Silicon Valley? Have they dealt with startups that may have raised funding? Have they dealt with equity grants before, stock options, vesting cliffs? All of this stuff is more than academic.
It’s something that the more experience you have with it, the more you know, “That’s a common clause to be in there,” or “That’s not a common clause and this is unusual where I would push back.” What I found is when you’re dealing with lawyers who are out of their depth or out of their expertise, that’s when they get overly aggressive because they’re uncertain and they’re trying to mitigate risk, but when they’re in their comfort zone of like, “Yeah, I’ve reviewed 10 of these in the past year,” they tend to feel much more comfortable with it.
The last thing I’ll say is I’ve dealt with a lot of lawyers, way too many, actually, just over the years of forming companies and doing all this stuff. It’s only been about 10% or 15% of them that I really enjoyed talking to and having conversations with, that I feel like actually have my business at heart, my well-being, and the company’s well-being at heart rather than just logging time, and that’s super unfortunate. That’s just my experience.
I’m not saying that’s how the whole industry is, but once I found a couple of attorneys with a couple of different areas of focus of expertise, I hold on to them for dear life. I refer people to them and I use them for everything. There’s one guy who doesn’t do anything with tax accounting, but I’ll even ask him tax accounting questions just because even his almost inexperienced answer is often better than the tax accounting attorney who is just stiff and giving me some boilerplate ECYA answer.
Now, it this attorney is just going to review one document, do you need a long-term relationship with them? Probably not, so you don’t need to take it so far. I bet if you go to UpCounsel and look for folks who are experts in startup loan and equity grants, I bet you’ll be fine with it. Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think Tracy?
Tracy: The best lawyers I’ve ever worked with have been referrals from friends. There’s so many out there. You don’t want to spend the time chatting with a bunch of different lawyers and then seeing if they’re the right one for you. That’s like Googling for random lawyers near you. You can follow this trap or it takes way too long and you’re talking to these lawyers and then you’re not getting your contract reviewed.
If it is at all possible, asking people near me, other startups, other friends, people or anything for a referral to their lawyers and getting their recommendations and their thoughts about how that lawyer works upfront saves a lot of time. I’ve worked with some, like you said, terrible lawyers that never respond, or respond cryptically, or respond with one liner and then charge me a lot of money for that one liner, and I’ve worked with some really amazing lawyers. The amazing lawyers have always come from referrals from other people who used them for the same situation that I did.
Rob: That’s great advice, and asking your personal network. Going to Twitter and asking other startup founders, if you’re in a founder Slack group, if you’re in the MicroConf crowd, if you’re in FounderCafe. There’s all these resources you can go in and say, “Hey, who knows a good lawyer,” and we don’t know the jurisdiction of your law so I don’t know if you’re in the UK or the US. If it is a law, that would be state-dependent. Or you can get a lawyer in any of the 50 states and employment law tends to be state whereas tax law is IRS and on and on. You ought to look at the nuances of that, but I wholeheartedly agree with you that the best attorneys you’re going to find are going to be referrals from other folks.
Tracy: That’s a good point about different states. I wasn’t thinking about that before. Probably about 90% of the lawyers I have worked with, I haven’t met in person. I’ve always just worked with them remotely. You don’t necessarily have to have someone who can go to the office and sit down and show them the contract. If you can find the right person to work with you where you can just send over that the contract over email and get their thoughts and pay without having to meet them.
Rob: For me, I prefer solo attorneys who work out of a home office, use Dropbox and DocuSign, aren’t working for some huge firm with a big office downtown and still using paper documents, that everything needs to be a phone call, and they won’t email. There’s this real dichotomy and the attorneys I enjoy working with the most are more like us. They’re more like startup founders. They’re agile, they use the tech, the cool hip stuff these days, and that’s what I personally would look for. Again, to review one stock option doc, you don’t need to look for all of this, but if you’re going to have an ongoing relationship, that’s what I would be looking for.
Cost is part of it. A solo attorney working out of a home office tend to be less expensive. They’re also not going to delegate a bunch of stuff. That’s what I hate when I work at big firms, you talk to the attorney, great. You charge $700 an hour and your law students, paralegals, and such are charging $350 an hour, but everything is delegated to them, and they don’t tend to know what they’re doing. They tend to have to loop the attorney in to make the hard decisions anyways and you’re the whole time dealing with a junior associate. I guess that’s where I get super frustrated.
It’s like, no. I want to work with someone super knowledgeable and I am willing to pay for it actually. I’m willing to pay the rate, but please answer my questions and don’t funnel me through an intermediary and when I have a solo attorney, they’re answering your questions and you know that they’re the expert in what they do.
Some good questions today. Thanks so much for coming on the show again with me, Tracy.
Tracy: Yeah. Again, super happy to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Rob: Absolutely. As a listener, if you have questions that you’d love to hear right on the show or you want to send us a voicemail, make it to the top of the stack, please email us email@example.com or you can always call our voicemail number if you’re on the road. It’s (888) 801-9690. Tracy, if folks want to keep up with you, they can go to tracyosborn.com or you are @tracymakes on Twitter.
Thanks again to Tracy for joining me on the show. I had a good time answering some listener questions. Seriously, send in your questions. We have bandwidth for even more listener questions over the course of the next few months. If you haven’t subscribed to this podcast, I encourage you to head to iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever greater podcasts are sold and enter Startups for the Rest of Us, subscribe, or head to our website, startupsfortherestofus.com.
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