Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in a (legal)tech startup / early-stage venture.
I’ve worked my entire career in tech companies dedicated to IP and legal, first as a developer and then working with clients directly. I moved to Europe to run operations there for a US-based legal software company (Datacert, now part of WoltersKluwer). After living in Switzerland for some time, I began to realize how underserved the market was there. Despite US companies coming over, they weren’t really addressing the needs of those clients, which tend to be much different from American clients. So, I decided to strike out on my own (since that is always something I’d wanted to do) and build a company designed from the beginning to serve European and multinational companies.
What was the inspiration for your start-up? How did it / your team come together? Introduce yourself – what do you (each) bring to the table?
The gap in the market was the biggest motivator. I saw the opportunity to become a provider that European companies would turn to because we understand their culture, business needs and way of doing things. I did not engage with investors and don’t have any other partners, but I did build a leadership team with whom I had worked with in the past and that represents a lot of experience in the space.
What stage are you at? Are you in the money? How’s it going? Give us a sense of things – the good, the bad and the ugly.
We are at the mid-stage right now, in that transition period that happens after the start-up phase. We’ve had a lot of rapid organic growth and have spent the better part of the past year putting foundations in place to manage that and plan for more. We’ve implemented “corporate” systems and processes and changed our management structure to best support and grow the business. We’ve also begun building a larger, more formal sales force. Up until now, the executive team and practice heads have largely served as our business development apparatus. We’re ready to capture more of the demand in the market with a more aggressive sales approach.
What problem(s) do you solve? Alternatively, what new or better opportunity do you create?
Yerra started with a focus on legal operations and helping corporate legal get a handle on spend and processes. We quickly proved ourselves to the point that clients were pushing us to take on other parts of their business, like eDiscovery and investigations. So, in many ways we’ve adapted our services to the problems that our clients want us to help them with. One of the things that has helped us is that we acknowledge that software isn’t the end-all-be-all solution to everything that it can sometimes be made out to be. Many of our clients have come to us because of a frustration with a software system that hasn’t delivered on its promises. So, we’ve created a hybrid approach of giving clients just enough technology to drive efficiency and balancing it with the human elements you still need – consistent administration, accurate data, meaningful reports and expert analysis of those reports. This helps our clients get what they need out of the systems they have and also keeps their lawyers from having to deal with aspects of the technology that isn’t the best use of their time or doesn’t fit their area of expertise.
What do you see as your greatest opportunity (including ideal exit)?
Now that we have the team and foundations in place to scale up, I see the international network we’ve built as our greatest opportunity. We are in a position, not just from a physical location standpoint but also from an expertise and cultural understanding aspect, to service clients in Europe, Asia and North America with ease. If an exit were to happen, I see this as one of our greatest assets. US companies often struggle to expand substantially in Europe and Asia. This is as much a matter of cultural understanding as it is a physical distance issue. So what we have in that regard is highly valuable to any vendor looking to expand – or (on the client side) to any international company that wants a global efficiency, compliance or technology initiative to succeed.
What’s your greatest challenge (in case someone reading can help you with it)?
Keeping an international team all “rowing in the same direction” can be a huge challenge. It isn’t something that can just happen overnight and we’ve worked really hard to make sure we function well with our leadership team spread around and traveling a lot, our client teams spread over three continents and each of our “back office” functions having to operate across the world. We do our best to make it smooth and easy, but internal communication can always be better.
Who inspires you – and why? Feel free to share your favorite inspirational quote or anecdote.
There are several great leaders that inspire me. Elon Musk who is creative and innovative and Melinda Gates who does incredible work to educate girls around the world. Richard Susskind who has been a great support since I started the company and also my mentor George Miller, GC of West Pharmaceutical Services.
My Favorite quote – The answer is already NO if you don’t ask.
What was your greatest failure – what did you learn from it and how have you applied it?
I wouldn’t say there is a greatest failure but I got burned a few times for trusting the wrong people. Recovering financially (not to mention emotionally) from it wasn’t easy, and now I am more conscious and diligent about whom I hire and whom I am surrounded by.
What was your greatest success – how did you leverage it?
My greatest success other than my two boys is starting Yerra and how we have grown over the years. People still ask me if I am surprised by the success…and my answer is always that no one starts anything expecting that it will be a failure! The work I have done and the relationships I built over the last 18 years have definitely paid infinite dividends.
Did you ever think of quitting? Assuming you didn’t actually quit, what did you learn from that time?
There were stressful times but never thought about quitting. If something goes wrong I think of ways to improve it rather than quitting. Positivity goes a long way.
Have you found the legal industry to be receptive to innovation? How ready for change do you think the legal industry is?
It’s more ready than I’ve ever seen it, especially in Europe and Asia. While some people view the lag in the adoption of technology and innovative practices as a problem for Europe and Asia, I see it as a huge opportunity. Legal & IP departments here aren’t stuck in old systems that they put in place a decade ago. They’re very well positioned to be early adopters of the most innovative technologies as they mature. It is entirely possible that European and Asian companies will leapfrog US companies in being innovative precisely because they dragged their feet a bit over the past couple of decades.
What do you see as being the greatest opportunity for the legal industry in the next decade?
Striking a balance between technology and practicality will be a huge challenge and a big opportunity. What I mean by this is that there are so many new and exciting technology options…some people may be like a kid in a candy shoppe. It’s important not to just start “grabbing” things off the shelf because they are cool. For those that come up with a really good strategy around technology, and mix it with the right administrative support and the expertise to fully leverage it, the future is very bright.
Where do you plan to be in the same period? Any thoughts on exit?
I hope to see Yerra to continue to prove ourselves on challenging projects and provide what our clients need to position themselves as innovators. I believe that if we do that, we’ll be the go-to provider of solutions for legal & IP, eDiscovery & investigations and compliance departments in companies that are headquartered outside of the US or for the US divisions of those multinational companies. That is our sweet spot, we know it well and we are well positioned to rapidly expand within that market.