Popular start-up lawyer and Bootlaw co-founder Danvers Baillieu recently left his job to work at IP proxy provider HideMyAss! Sign of a bubble, or a great opportunity? Baillieu explains his thinking.
Having now made the leap from law to a non-legal role in a tech company, I will be writing in The Kernel from time to time on legal and business issues. But before I get to that, I’ve been asked to introduce myself. Unlike former Goldman Sachs employee, Greg Smith, I don’t have any “scandalous” but predictable announcements to make about my former job. Neither can I make cringeworthy boasts about winning a bronze medal for playing Ping Pong in the Jewish – or, for that matter, any other – Olympic Games.
Lest you think I have only ever been a corporate lawyer, let me tell you a bit about my background. I joined City law firm Lovells (now Hogan Lovells) in 2001 as a trainee. I qualified as a solicitor in 2003 and joined US firm Winston & Strawn as it opened its London office. In its own way, it was a start up: I didn’t quite have to assemble my own office furniture, but walking into my office on day one, the desk was definitely on its side. This, however, was not my first experience of a start-up.
Back in the heady days of Y2K, between law school and starting at Lovells, I had a sideline of building websites – mainly for aspiring Conservative candidates heading into the 2001 election. The websites weren’t anything special and neither were the candidates: only one of them was elected. He then went onto lose his seat in 2005. Still, my experience gave me a taste for business, and more importantly business on the web.
My second foray into business was in 2002, as a minority shareholder in a business started by my brother: a nightclub and restaurant called Firehouse, in a building opposite the Natural History Museum now occupied by a club called Dorsia.
They say you learn more from failure than success. I learnt a lot from Firehouse and managed to get out in 2008 with my investment more or less intact. Despite a lot of sweat and a few tears, I never made a penny out of Firehouse, but the free food and drink was a good fringe benefit – and, in perhaps the best dividend I could have hoped for, I was first introduced to my wife-to-be in the ground floor bar.
At Winston & Strawn, I met the senior associate in London on the case, Barry Vitou, who pulled me into the MegaFon case, initially to help him organise his papers. I quickly managed to delegate filing duties and moved onto more exciting things. The five-year legal battle we were embroiled in had us jumping on planes as if they were buses and somehow I managed to become the Caribbean specialist, so despite all-embracing work with wild and sometimes true allegations flying left, right and centre, by 2005, I was a 2 years qualified lawyer with a British Airways gold card, billing 2000 hours a year and married to a girl I had met in my own nightclub. Life was pretty good.
The end of my involvement in the dispute we’d been working on came in the spring of 2008, inconveniently less than 6 months before the western world’s economy decided to take a flying leap and trigger the biggest round of redundancies City law firms have ever seen. Somehow, I managed to dodge that bullet as in 2007 I had done a bit of work for a personal contact, who introduced us to the founders of Huddle, who in turn were kind enough to trust us with their £2m series A funding round, which closed that autumn. So as the crazy Russian litigation door closed, the crazy early stage start-up window opened.
The night in 2008 that Lehman Brothers was collapsing, Barry and I were standing on the roof of the Hudson Hotel in New York drinking beers with Tom Watson MP and Sam Michel of Chinwag, as Winston & Strawn were corporate sponsors of the first UKTI-backed Digital Mission. A few weeks earlier, sitting by a swimming pool in Majorca, Barry had the idea that we should start our own event for start-ups. We agreed we needed to mimic other events around at the time, serve beer and pizza and give it a snappy name – and not tell anyone else in the office what we were up to.
Back in London, I began thinking up suitable names with an available domain to go with it. Bootlaw.com was taken, but Bootlaw.org was available for just the standard registration fee. I grabbed it and pointed it at our hastily cobbled together Meetup page, complete with logo designed by yours truly on PowerPoint. (Law firms don’t tend to provide the best graphic packages.)
The Bootlaw Meetup group went live on 21 August 2008 – on 22 August Barry (dashing straight from Gatwick) and I took the stage at a Minibar event at the Truman Brewery and announced Bootlaw to the London start up community. We invited everyone to our first event on 24 September 2008.
Two things then happened. First, I was asked by the owner of Bootlaw.com if I wanted to purchase it for $600. I ignored the approach, but he persisted and asked me to make an offer – we got the dot com for $50. Secondly, we managed to get 30 or so people to sign up to the first event, at which point we took our managing partner out for lunch and told him that we were holding an event for start-ups where we would serve beer and pizza, and we were organising it via the internet, so it was a bit of a free for all. Despite the fact we were breaking all sorts of company rules, he gave us his blessing.
The rest, as they say, is history. When I handed over the reins of Bootlaw a few weeks ago it had over 1,000 members. It generates hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in legal fees, now for Pinsent Masons, following the move Barry and I made in early 2011. In the four and a half years since Huddle’s series A, I’ve had the privilege of working for at least 100 different start-ups and with dozens of investors.
The reason for the move I’ve made now is simple: I figured that doing what my clients did seemed much more fun than advising them on doing it. Ever since meeting the Huddle guys, I wanted to be on the other side of the table. Until now, either the proposition seemed too risky or downright bonkers (and in some cases, that also applied to the founders) or the team was already up and running and in no need of my valuable but pricey input on a full time basis.
Last year, I met a young founder with a profitable business but with no team, at least not on the business side. Taking inspiration from my former law firm’s time recording software, Carpe Diem, over lunch at Pizza East last December, I suggested he might like to hire me.
As an advisor, I was essentially on the sidelines, giving my views but never taking ultimate responsibility for any of my clients’ commercial decisions. As a lawyer, I got to manage my own practice to a limited extent, but had I stayed it would have been many years before I had any real responsibility for the direction of the firm’s business – and I did not fancy setting up my own boutique law firm.
Ultimately, I took the strategic decision that with 30 years of good work left, I would be better off spending it in a technology business, which could double in size every year, rather than in a law firm, where you have to work extremely hard just to keep standing still. In a way, you could argue that I have de-risked my career.
I am now a week into my new job as chief operating officer of Privax Limited. Privax is the holding company for the amusingly-named HideMyAss!, one of the top IP Proxy sites in the world with over 8.5m unique visitors per month and purveyor of fine VPN software, allowing its tens of thousands of paying subscribers to connect to the internet safely and anonymously, bypassing the censorship imposed by certain countries and websites. I’ll explain this in more detail another time.
The view from this side of the table? It’s wonderful.