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Branding to Founders: What Law Firms Got Right and Others Haven’t

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Say what you want to about law firms, but some of them have nailed a great branding hack: they have taken a stodgy service provider offering and “startupized” it by customizing and branding their work to appeal to founders. Of course, this isn’t just a branding task, there’s often real substance behind it — a solid startup-savvy lawyer can be one of the most critical partnership decisions a CEO makes. But the mere fact that so many first-time founders understand the value of a great law firm is pretty remarkable. 83(b) elections, for instance, are now common knowledge in the startup community, and it doesn’t take most CEOs more than five minutes to track down some publicly-released template seed funding documents.

These firms aren’t simply generous — cultivating a client pool of top seed-stage startups can be a huge win down the road for a service provider when those companies get bigger and pay bigger fees. But as far as I can tell, the path that startup-friendly law firms blazed hasn’t been followed by other service providers, even ones with a similar relationship to entrepreneurs. Who is the Wilson Sonsini or Gunderson of the accounting world, for instance? There isn’t one, but funded startups still pay for outside tax and bookkeeping work. I’ve spoken with several VCs who believe that the lack of startup-savvy accounting and CFO expertise is a talent crisis only exceeded by the deficit of hackers.

This is a branding problem that certain law firms have solved and other service providers haven’t. Because some firms have established thought leadership, savvy founders –even first-time founders — know what law firm they want, and they find an intro to that firm. The discovery process for (say) accountants is totally different, as there aren’t any branded, aspirational accounting firms that appeal to founders. Rather, many founders simply use a friend of a friend or family member to do their tax and accounting work or get a poorly-researched referral from another entrepreneur. This is a huge missed opportunity for everyone, especially the service providers.

Accounting firms aren’t the only ones missing the boat. Here are a few others, although I’m sure there are more:

PEOs and Payroll Providers: I’ve never met a founder who has enjoyed working with a PEO or payroll provider. Dealing with payroll, workers’ comp, insurance, taxes, health coverage and similar headaches is a huge pain, and the PEOs and payroll providers I’ve seen have punted on every opportunity to make it easier. Rather than crafting a unique value prop for startups and charging appropriately, these firms make the mistake of treating startups as “small versions of large companies”, assume that every startup has a dozen departments, charge too little and deliver way too little.

Wealth Management: I’m writing in more detail on this topic in this week’s letter.ly. But in brief, I think wealth management organizations — despite their traditional sales-heavy tactics — are missing a huge opportunity by not developing a savvier brand that can appeal to founders. Of all the wealth management groups, I figure at least one of them would acknowledge the lessons of the Bay Area finance revolution and focus their specialization on risk mitigation and alternative asset classes like P2P lending and real estate.

Office Hardware: The traditional office copier leasing process is miserable for entrepreneurs — which is a shame, because there are a lot of benefits to leasing a machine rather than maintaining your own. Have an office with a mix of Macs and PCs or fewer than two years of tax returns? Good luck.

All of these industries are ripe to be disrupted by savvy service providers that are willing to craft brands and offerings that appeal directly to founders. It’s easier than ever to start a company, and there are far more startups and founders today than there ever have been. So who will tackle the new market?

Written by Brad Hargreaves

December 4th, 2010 at 11:58 am