Let me spin you a yarn
Two years ago I had just left a prized job at one of London’s best law firms with no real plan, only some modest savings and a vision of how I wanted to devote my time. I now head up Nanoloom, a company using a novel graphene-based material, BioHastalex, to create biodegradable fiber that can outperform plastics across every industry (starting with textiles). It may seem like a huge leap, but in reality, my early legal career and experience have placed me in a pole position to tackle this venture.
Working as a lawyer in the fields of M&A and IPOs may not seem the most obvious pathway into the world of startups, but some of the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met are former lawyers, particularly in my work with LawTech startups. They’re driven, project-orientated, and thorough (and let’s not forget, some of them have managed to sell technology to lawyers). Having worked in several fields now, I can confidently say that the quality at the top in a big firm is unparalleled, but it’s not a fit for everyone. While working on large deals provided a decent challenge, I didn’t feel like I was where the real innovation happens. So I started to look at where I could use my skill set and build on my experience, but with a new focus.
Being asked to be a guest writer for CRIISP’s publications, I thought it made sense to introduce my background first. But rather than a generic timeline, I hope you will enjoy its telling through the few key things that I’ve learned along the journey so far, and I’ll aim to use this platform going forward to provide some modest insights on various topics which said the journey has afforded me.
Sometimes you’ve got to make the move – You can’t underestimate the benefit of a big market
This will of course be dependent on the sector you’re in, but you won’t find the same opportunities in smaller cities t
hat you do in major commercial hubs like London, New York, Singapore, or Hong Kong. This is not an exclusive list, but the opportunities I have come across in London do not exist to the same scale in many other places, includi
ng my home country of Australia, which was a driving force to my move from the antipodes in 2016. There is a reason why, when companies look to list, they typically aim to choose between London, New York, and Hong Kong. So follow the money!
The depth of these bigger markets is unmatched. While this can make navigating the regulatory environment somewhat trickier, as when you’re trying to meet a sophisticated market’s regulatory requirements, the global influx of capital, intellect, and opportunity more than makes up for it. They are ideal hubs for startups to bounce ideas off each other at seminars, meet-ups, and other events, and to grow organically with their peers. There are larger quantities of international deals and collaboration, coupled with strong government investment in innovation. By way of example, last year I was part of an Innovate UK graphene mission to Boston, which offered a genuinely unique opportunity to connect with investors and founders from across the United States who were interested in materials innovations.
This is not to say you have to move to one of these commercial centers, or that there aren’t benefits to starting up in a smaller ecosystem. It’s to say that in all my time in Sydney I didn’t come across a fraction of the opportunities that presented themselves in one month in London.
Not every step was for the long term – don’t miss the right exit
As Kenny Rogers said, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em. One of the smaller ventures I embarked on (post-law, pre-Nanoloom) was an app for the travel industry. I set up a company to operate it, built the app, and started building partnerships when, for a number of reasons, I decided to drop it within a few months of being launch-ready. Not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I had come to the realisation that I was not sufficiently invested in what the app was trying to achieve to devote the next several years (at least) to growing it. With the benefit of perfect hindsight, it would almost certainly have fallen over during the pandemic with travel so restricted.
But the key point is I walked away because it wasn’t right for me, yet I learned a lot about company management at the smallest scale and built a fully functioning app in NodeJS, plus I was on my own two feet (gone were the days of corporate credit cards and battalions of document production and business development support). The time was a sunk cost, but the experience has certainly helped me get to this place where I am now working on something that is incredibly close to me (environmental sustainability).
Leveraging your background in a new venture – Know what you don’t know
When you first pick up the phone to your lawyer with a question that isn’t obvious (can I sue the EU for the losses my business will incur because they are not fast enough in reaching a Brexit deal with the UK?), it’s quite possible they don’t know the answer (no, really). But they will find it and they will furrow down every rabbit hole to dig out anything that might trip you up, no matter how tangential to their area it is (case in point above). Nevertheless, we all have blind spots and there’s nothing worse than when we think we don’t because that’s what inevitably leads us to our most unexpected mistakes.
My time in corporate law left me well prepared. At the most basic level, I know how to protect my company in a shareholder’s agreement, and what investor comments on an NDA actually matter (which are key and which are less critical), or what authorisations I need for major decisions, and how to get them. I also know to be on the lookout for certain things – will this company’s percentage shareholding affect my ability to claim tax credits or apply for a grant? Is this action we’re about to take something that could cause regulatory problems in a market we are looking to enter? But chiefly I know what I just shouldn’t touch without external expertise (looking at you, patents).
Whatever your background, you will have picked up skills and networks that hopefully make you great at certain things, but you should know when to look to others in your team or externally. So figure out where you should be devoting your time to push things forward, and when you need to take a step back and have someone provide that little bit of “extra” to get you across the line.
Finding the right fit – the virtues of patience
Working on large corporate deals, everything was expected to be churned out the same day. It could not possibly wait until tomorrow morning, let alone Monday. Leaving that environment, it was hard at first to get used to the fact that most other people have reasonable timeframes to work towards and everything does not, in fact, happen immediately.
One of the key things our team is adamant about to ensure Nanoloom is well placed in the long term is finding the right fit – whether it’s a hire or an investor or a product. It’s never worth agreeing to terms or valuations that you don’t believe in just to secure that deal or that piece of funding. Patience can be difficult when you’re short on time, but in the early stages of your company, you are making decisions that will affect it for many years to come. You need to bring people along on your journey who are aligned with your vision, and who are invested with more than money in your business. Short-sightedness can derail that vision or narrow your opportunities and options in the future.
For Nanoloom, it’s been key to engage investors who have an impact and sustainability focus, and who will take the time to understand our incredible technology at a deeper level. This can be difficult during a pandemic when much of the focus is on apps, but on the flip-side, it is incredibly rewarding to speak with those really engaged investors who ask the right technical questions and are interested in our rigorous testing procedures and results. And for the ones that don’t, we just aren’t the right fit for each other but it’s still a great networking opportunity.
My final thought is that not all advice is good advice (and I don’t mean expert advice sought above!). No matter how well-intentioned, whether you’re a founder or climbing the corporate ladder you’re going to get a lot of advice from friends, family, colleagues, and even from online articles (I know).
If you followed someone else’s advice you might have a product only they’d buy or use, and if you only follow another’s you’d have designed it for them. But your journey is yours, so do not be hesitant to back yourself and pick and choose the advice you need, to put it to the test, and to challenge it. Many early-stage investors will say the team is one of the most important catalysts in determining whether they make an investment into a given company or not. So tell your story and be you.
The views expressed are my own, do not represent those of any company or body I am affiliated with, and do not constitute any form of legal, financial, or professional advice.