Dana Denis-Smith: Being Human First, Everything Else Comes After

Consciously bootstrapped from day one, Dana focused early effort on building a community and creating a product that meets a market need.

Early customers and clients were managed on spreadsheets, then a relatively primitive, off the shelf CRM system. She realised the critical piece in making the business successful was managing the relationships between people on both sides of the transaction and it was only when you could understand this dynamic that there was any value in investing in technology at the point that you could not scale without it. Dana shares insights into her quest for product market fit as well as thoughts on ways that all companies can tap into undervalued talent pools.

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Dana Denis-Smith: Thank you! Hi! My name is Dana Denis-Smith, I am the founder and CEO of a company called Obelisk Support. We’re based in Farringdon, just down the road. I think I like this to become a very much a session about you, not just about me, although I’m quite happy to talk about how I came to run something from nothing to multi-million pound company. I’m quite happy to take questions and to learn from you as much as you can learn from my experience. I hope you will ask questions throughout and I’m sure you will because there’s so many men in the room and they always ask us questions! I’m hoping lots of ladies will join in. I’m happy for questions to be put as I go to my journey for setting up this business which I think is more logical than waiting at the end.

So I founded the business in 2010, quite depressingly around the same time as the U word, I promised I wouldn’t mention it. But Uber started around the same time when I went to San Francisco to see their offices, I was slightly depressed that they were where they were and we were here and we’re much smaller. We started the business in a different way. So I will tell you quickly what my idea was and why I get out of bed every morning.

I set out to build a business in the legal sector. For those of you who don’t know or never had dealings with lawyers it’s a sector that really hasn’t disrupted at all, they are the last ones that will fall in the face of technology. I was a lawyer for a couple years and I noticed something very odd kept happening. A lot of my female friends were leaving, once they had children, and all the partners were men. I thought this is a very strange situation that a lot of women were being highly educated and then they were leaving the workplace. And I kept that thought with me, I didn’t do anything about it after I left my firm I set up a company in the political risk space. It was all very strange really but I’ve been a journalist before becoming a lawyer and I had had enough of this city law firm kind of world of talent being what I called constrained by a very very inflexible structure. So I wanted to do something completely different that was linked to my career before.

And then I had one of those moments about 3 years after leaving my law firm when I went to India and I found out a lot of law firms and organisations were also sending legal work to India and that was the biggest trend and the new thing to do. So I went and visited a few centres and I was quite shocked really. I didn’t feel that was the right way to treat people overall and it was very crammed. A little bit like the Uber experience, you feel totally deflated. Hopefully not like how you feel after lunch and hearing me speak now. I thought something more positive had to be done in this outsourcing space that really harnessed the talent and made people work to the best of their ability not just like bees.

So all the knowledge I had accumulated as a lawyer around the things that annoyed me like people not progressing if they had children, all came in this moment that a lot of entrepreneurs have. And the other things that they always do and I’m sure a lot of you in the room are the same, you get obsessed about the idea when the lightbulb hits. I came back thinking I have it! People want to do work in a more flexible way and I will engage not Indians in India or Philippines or people in labour wage world, I will engage the power of the mom at home and I will create a business where we match the talent that is at home with large corporates that need extra support for work. So basically I became a matchmaker trying to get lawyers who were highly experienced to do work around the family. I thought this is exciting! I will wind down my other company and get out of political risk. This is very scalable and I will never touch a contract myself, I don’t want to do any of the legal work. I will just empower these talents to come back to the market and really support clients that were seeing a surge in regulation and they needed more help.

That sounded like an easy thing to do and I said to my husband I will do something different. He’s a lawyer and was like crazy woman! Anyway, that’s what I did. So I said well what would you call it? Just call it anything. He basically named something and I said I well I’ll incorporate anything at this point. I will narrow down the proposition but at this point it’s going to be ex-city lawyers for large corporates. All set up, 12th of July 2010, very exciting! Then I realised I was pregnant with my first child. I’d never been pregnant before and had no idea what would happen. And all my business development meetings became a parenting class. You will see you will quit like everybody else. Why would you want to continue with your business once you’ve had your child? I heard you don’t know what child you’ll have. It was getting very strange, at a point I was thinking they don’t wish me well, they hope that I will have the worst experience ever and I will quit.

So this moms army that I started building, I had initially four lawyers that I identified from the law society, I went to them and said do you have any moms that keep going on that they want to work and nobody gives them work. They said well here are these four ladies. So basically for the first year unlike – actually a bit like Uber, we had no business. We didn’t make any money but I didn’t have any investors because the only time I tried to see whether my business would be investible was to go to an angel funding kind of event and my bump was already showing. And I was like great idea but I don’t think it’s for you to be backed right now. Not in this kind of express way, but that was the message. I thought it’s me, my bump, my idea and I will show you. And the mom’s army will come after you because it’s wrong that they should be forced out and I had a very strong sense of justice in a weird kind of way that this way of working to disfranchise the population that was highly talented and educated was wrong and I felt very strongly that that had to be changed.

Obelisk Support

Now it’s very difficult to change when nobody buys. So I thought well we’ll do what we can. I mean I didn’t have anybody helping me and I will just see through my birth date and my kid being ok and I will come back with a vengeance. That’s what I did and I said we’ve only really traded for 6 years. And I had a lucky introduction from someone who said I know someone at Goldman Sachs why don’t you meet her? Maybe she’ll give you something. I said this is fantastic! I will do just that! And I had a meeting and the lady completely got it, she basically said I have 3 kids and have seen the problem. I don’t know how to address it at the sector level, but I’ll look to see how I can support and buy something from you. At this stage we had 12 lawyers. And she came back and said I’ve identified work in the derivative space and it’s all in foreign languages. I said, any language you like, I will do anything really! Because I had realised from by going through all the people we were recruiting they had an incredible kind of range of talents, so they were great lawyers but they had done French degrees, German degrees, they were highly educated people that once you looked at them, they could do these documents with no problems. Actually it feels slightly brutal like I’ll do whatever you say, it was quite an informed decision on my part knowing that I could deliver on this project. That’s when the model centered very much in the enterprise world and we started getting traction because once you please Goldman Sachs then it appears most of the world is happy with your standards.

I at this stage, had zero technology in my business. I had one Apple laptop and I knew I kind of jumped from the stage of… I don’t know how many in the room remember basic, the language of computers. I left from the basic level of language to platform technology which is kind of a bit strange. But it makes you want to keep it all very simple and to make sure it works. So the point is as the notes up there says, because I had a very strong sense of purpose and why I needed this company to succeed, I didn’t feel that there was any kind of silver bullet that would resolve the problem because the clients were very slow adopters at the beginning even though Goldman Sachs gave us some work, it took a long time. I had the worst meetings in my life with this business where clients said what do you mean? So if I call and the mom is at the gate, do you mean they will do my work? I mean the gate being the school gate. There are all these reasons why people would push back and say so what these people – they can afford to drop out or some kind of ridiculous reasons why they wouldn’t want to engage so we had to have an incredible amount of narrowmindness about it to say, I know you have this problem and I will resolve it in this way. I remember a meeting where I took one of my lawyers with me and she was 8 months pregnant and I had lost my voice and she was kind of speaking but the guys were just really aggressive about she was not gonna be a reliable lawyer for them and it was all around how our operating system worked and how would our security system work. How it would be impossible to deliver – that was basically the whole framework of the meeting. It was an infuriating meeting in many respects and we didn’t get work from them but they are our clients. It took them 2 years to turn but it was one of those meetings where you realise that yes, you are seeing other very small company and there would be a lot of obstacles thrown in your face and you have to have answers to those questions.

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For example, the ideal security and confidentiality in the legal space is massive, so everybody will find a reason to push back on any new entrance based on I need my documents to be confidential. With the cloud world, even I used Citrix when I was a lawyer so it’s not as impossible as it’s made out to be. So you have to have these answers ready. And all our lawyers work for a kind of VD system so that’s all very secure, they can’t drag anything out or print anything so that it’s secure and the client feels comfortable so it’s the kind of give and take that you have to bring to the table. But when you have literally started with 2000 GBP and nobody, it feels like a huge amount to a client. And at times, although I don’t stop very often to think, I do wonder how or why did I keep doing it, especially when my daughter was up at night and screaming her head off. Yeah, they have a point, you could create any point.

Anyway, so what did I do? I didn’t hire anybody for 3 years. Not because I didn’t want to and I wasn’t desperate. I went through a stage which I called the voodoo recruitment method which is everybody loves what you stand for. So I was very much a supplier based/purpose led business where everybody is coming in because they believed I would save them from the guilt of parenting basically. And they would all come and rally behind me but there was no work and you can’t keep these people happy unless you can see through the flexibility you promised them. So it becomes quite an onset of conversation unless you educate the other side of the market quickly enough.

So I didn’t want to invest money on building up a team cause I didn’t have much money and I had just had a child and I needed to think about the future until I felt I had enough traction. I think we got 500k turnover by that stage with just me and my kind of working at night, not sleeping and then looking after the baby at the same time during the day. It was quite a daisy kind of world, I don’t remember much about it as you can imagine. So 2013 is when things kind of seemed to have taken shape and to be more defined so even though we ran for 6 years, in reality we’ve only really ran since 2013 when I brought in the first person to look into how do we make this into a business? Not just a bunch of people that believe in what you stand for, but a business that works on both sides of the market. Again, with no technology. Spreadsheets were my friend. This lady was a spreadsheet master. It was quite unbelievable really, the most beautiful things ever and she just organised all the information in a really logical way. But it wasn’t searchable and wasn’t giving everything back. It was easy enough to manage the business but it wasn’t if you like allowing me to scale.


But we’ve grown from, when I look and I had a conversation at lunchtime earlier, we’ve grown 170% every year since 2013. It’s a huge amount of growth, I never knew what it meant until I was in it. I always say I kind of formula 1 car and I can’t jump out. And it’s going very fast and sometimes it slows down a bit and then you just literally are in this whirlwind that moves and moves and it’s really exciting and you have to take everything that’s giving you but you have to kind of keep your head at the same time. It’s quite a difficult thing to do. Obviously I didn’t have any business education so I kind of made it up as I went along. I was a lawyer and journalist, I wasn’t trained to be a business woman. I kind of just wanted to if you like, the best lessons I learned are from sportsmen that find themselves in a corner and kind of pull themselves out. You think yeah, there must be a trick. I must learn how do you elevate your game when things are tough?

Once I brought in the first employee and the spreadsheets were beautiful, they weren’t telling us anything, they weren’t talking back, I started thinking about what kind of technology can we bring in to make these, what I call, arranged marriages better and quicker to organise. So I looked around in the market again, looking for outsource solution, thinking that it could be a very quick solution that is off the shelf and the economy has really taken of. And I couldn’t find anything so I concluded to bring in a technology director. So in 2015, we hired in the first person that started to if you’d like, do away with all the spreadsheets. That was his mandate. And really learn about what we understood was the kind of magic in how we made certain things work better for our clients. Why did our clients come back to us and how can we automate without losing that magic? It’s a very difficult thing to achieve I feel. But knowing how it worked in practice from that human contact, we realised there were certain things we were doing extremely well that actually no automation will give us any scale if we moved or replaced. So how do you maintain that human contact and really just create a much better operation behind to make clients happier but without realising it’s just automated?

So the first iteration of the platform was very much the CRM type thing where you end up and are focused very much on the jobs; and we had all our consultants, had deep search and all these things you guys know. Cause as I told you, I moved from basic language to trying to learn the platform language side. I didn’t know what’s going on technologically speaking. But most stuff available out there is kind of what we brought in to allow the matchmaking to be very sleek and quick and to have much better visibility of the talents of the people. And really go into a lot of detail not just by CV but through work histories and certain things we felt would allow us to create a better solution quicker.

So we had a 2 stage release to that. First one was a central platform and the second one was bringing the lawyers on-board which was a very difficult thing to do because lawyers are renowned, known digitised people. They have actually a lot of tech anger. They don’t get it and they feel very… if Word doesn’t open up quickly enough, then they lose their rag quickly. So bringing them on in a way that actually enhanced the platform and really gave us value – it was important to get them to adopt it and make it very simple, so they didn’t disconnect very quickly. I thought it was very important because I think having looked at the kind of Uber models where everything is led by huge numbers of people that come in, they start going in and create profiles and everything but then actually 1% stay on, that wasn’t gonna be valuable to the business. I didn’t want a huge number of lawyers on my platforms of which I can’t rely on any. I want to have a very high participation rate in order to always have the right stock if you like on the shelf to provide my solutions to the clients.

So we basically took the view that we had to migrate everybody online which we started doing only at the end of last year. So we now have 1200 lawyers, I don’t think we could have ever achieved this kind of number without this technology solution. On boarding these people and being able to find the excuses to match them, the only way we could have done it was through a technology solution like the one we built ourselves in house. So obviously having learned again from how lawyers interact with technology and how clients interact with the solutions we’ve given them – again still manually presented to them – we going into the next stage of development to see how we can create this kind of curated marketplace. Again, learning from what works really well and not losing the magic touch that keeps the client with us.

It’s a simple – the reason we’ve done it like human first is simply if you don’t have the money to start throwing huge amounts of money into building a platform that might not work, every stage of the release has to work, it’s simple. Otherwise I’m putting hundreds of thousands of pounds that I could have pocketed myself into a product that doesn’t take the business anywhere. So I have no runway to make silly mistakes although you can make mistakes you can recover from. So every decision around what kind of product we want to release next has to be something the customer can adopt and will create more value for us.

I recognise in the invested world, in the VC world, it’s very much the wrong way round because they come in, give you the money, iterate and maybe something will stick. I have to make it stick every stage of the way. And so far so good, it seems to be working. And the simplicity to the lawyer user seems to be the right way to approach it. But we’ll have to see if the buyers which are also lawyers are sufficiently digitised to really then measure whether a marketplace and the kind of more general ideal would work or not. I think it’s too early to tell. The sectors too backward for this kind of traction to be really something that we can see.

In terms of the culture of the business and what – I’m seeing that everybody is either asleep or I don’t know – seem not to have any questions which I must be answering all the questions as I’m speaking. The other thing I found helpful was – so we’ve got to 1200 lawyers and I have a central team of about 10 people, a couple more people joining in, so very lean operation, almost everybody is like one of a kind in the business. I’m heavily reliant on people that know what they’re doing and they have to be very aligned to the business.

But how did I get here was through, I don’t know – I’m sure everybody’s people problems are similar to mine. It was just initially having the bunch of enthusiasts and trying to get them things to do which I used to call the knitting circle, at that stage. We just sit around and we all believe in the same thing, but actually it’s really ineffective. But I had to do something about that. Then we had this first employee that was very capable but very uninterested in the culture of the place. So you can’t build a culture of the start-up just by being yourself, you have to have people that take it on-board. So the knitting circle was great for adopting the purpose but very bad at actually delivering growth. The spreadsheet stage was very good at delivering growth but it was soul destroying phase and I had to do something about it. And the overarching proposition why we’re in the market was relatively well articulated but I felt I was recruiting the wrong people, I kept attracting the wrong kind of lawyers if you’d like. And I had lots of recommendations for books that could fix this problem and entrepreneurs don’t really like details in a way. So I didn’t have a CEO that said this your problem, get a few nice people and things will work out.

Obelisk Support

So I realised that I had to put down in writing what I cared about because I would get wound up by ridiculous things like people not putting hello in an email. If someone would just address by the first name, I felt it was a very aggressive way to represent the company. You have to salute in an email and be warm and have these qualities that I believed everyone understood that I was after. But actually nobody knew what I was after because I wasn’t telling them and that really annoyed me.

So I sat down, I think it was late in 2015, when we started already building technology and I said I’ve got to put this in writing and create a bible of what it is that is important to me. Why did I found this business, what is it all about and what are the administrative things that really annoy me and what I expect of the conduct and attitude of the people in the business. So they are clear and they have reference points and can contribute to it, but it’s not a kind of a guessing game. Sometimes as an entrepreneur you think everyone understands what you’re going for because you’re living it but many people come in because it’s a job. So you have to give them and empower them to have the tools to be able to adopt that culture and then expand it because in a way they run the business. I am here and they’re in the office making the company a success. To work out in the culture, but I needed to give them the framework. I wrote this thing which became a book later. I think it’s about 30 pages, I didn’t think to bring it. And I had it beautifully designed in an A5 format, so everybody who comes in the business at the moment gets their own hand-written dedicated copy of this and it gives them a sense of what’s important to us. Everyone contributes to it because once I’ve written the first iteration I’ve asked them to comment and tell me if I’ve missed anything or they felt there are things that are important to what we want to be as a business and have them reflected. So they all fed in to the document so it became theirs with my framework. And it’s changed the way we bring people in, it’s made people much more – they own the recruitment process much more. We’ve now got to the stage where we recruit and have assessment days, it’s quite a quick turnaround from the voodoo, you know, anybody come in, please, if you have a bit of time to now having a very structured process.

Audience Question: [inaudible]

Dana Denis-Smith: Both actually. We have two types of recruitment, so for the central team it’s slightly different because they’re there day in and day out fulltime whereas the lawyers have flexibility to be available when they can be available. So we have more technical recruitment process around your legal skills, attention to detail, whatever the clients would expect for the lawyers whereas the central team it’s very cultural. What do you want to bring or what do you think you bring to the party? But everybody – so for example we have a process that gets all the candidates in one room so everybody who shortlists for a job comes at the same time which shocks them because they don’t expect to see their competitors in the same room. We have a test for them which is a joke but we kind of look at it more seriously than it sounds. We have a psychopath test. We just found actually people with higher score in that test tend to be very all about them. And they were really disrupting and we couldn’t afford to have any disruptions in the business because we’re too small. So one rotten apple basically makes all the apples rotten and we can’t have that. So anybody that is very self-centred would be very bad because people get very affected very quickly. We learn from the mistakes. We had people with high scores and we didn’t learn from our error and we started to take this test much more seriously than at the beginning. It was a joke so now it’s for real.

So they all come in a room and they all have to present against a set of questions and they have to stick with their performance, that was predetermined rather than stealing from other people’s ideas. At the end of the process, every single person from the team, we score everybody by question in a very thorough way. So the one with the higher score is the one that gets the offer- and it’s a collective way to decide who’s best and I would never overrule the team if actually I didn’t agree someone would be good – I made enough errors in the past with people that didn’t work out for me to know it’s not my strength and actually this collective way has worked. So it’s gone from a very ad-hoc way of managing the business to a very structured way in a very short space of time. Literally 3 and half years of having employees. But it’s definitely given us the cultural alignment I was after and I felt the sense of ownership I wanted from people, I couldn’t have had it without giving them the time to really adopt what I set out to do and then create their own process around it. So that’s kind of what I think has made a huge difference in how we even educate ourselves about what are the next priorities around technology and what we want to achieve in the market because you have this very strong central team that knows what they want and therefore they will be able to indicate to the technology team what kind of things would work or won’t work. And the tech team are very happy to listen to that rather than – we had these conversations I think they were very amused when I said I was coming to speak to you guys, they were like this is the funniest thing ever! Are we really a tech company or not? Obviously we got a level for tech enabling but we were not a tech company in the Uber sense of the word cause we’re not led our products – we’re not led by a product to the market. We very much are services to the business with technology rather than the standard offer. So they thought it was very funny I was giving you a talk here.

But I think it’s that kind of constant collaboration with them where the concept of the product, that is so obviously dominant in the tech world doesn’t override the experience of the humans that have actually learned a few things from doing things manually. So there’s this constant education that goes between the two sides but nobody is trying to dominate which I found has created a much better tech for us in terms of what it’s doing for us. Obviously the jury is still out in terms of what we are going to take to the market on the client side. For the time being, it’s definitely helped the team digitise, the lawyer’s digitised. Everybody has become more tech enabled without overriding the other sides. Do I still have time? Yeah. Any more questions?

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Audience Question: I’m interested in your challenge you’re running what sounds to me like a technology business. I see your distinction between a services platform. You’re essentially running a matching engine platform. And you’re rather like me, I’m a non-technologist who is running his own technology business and I’m interested in what kind of challenges that presents to you as a non-technologist but very dependent on technology for making your success.

Dana Denis-Smith: I think that’s a really good question because especially around competition monitoring if you’d like for example. If I look at the competition and try to assess where they are, it’s quite difficult for me to go and get help if they got something I don’t have. I found it’s a bit difficult in terms of just assessing the market in a more realistic way and in a way that gives me comfort. I’m entirely dependent on other people saying this is what this means and what that means. I’ve always been I think a bit of an enthusiast in an early adopter and I found out when I was in the Silicon Valley last year. We went to LinkedIn, to their offices there and they told me, I had no idea, I was one of the first 100,000 users in the world. That was pretty early I would say given that why was I doing it anyway? I was basically always jumping on experiencing technology much earlier than a lot of the people around me. I wasn’t aware of it and I’m quite geeky but without knowing it if you know what I mean. I’m not aware of my enthusiasm but I’m always an early adopter for some reason. And I think that’s helping because I like to learn about what’s going on and I think that curiosity is what drives an entrepreneur not the technical skill.

I never wanted to do anything with my business other than set it up and let it fly. I never wanted to control it or to make it in my own image. I have my own integrity framework and I don’t want to become an abuser of people, or whatever, but that’s kind of, for me, the role of the entrepreneur is to create that kind of happy place where people can thrive and make something bigger than themselves. That’s the difference between being a consultant and entrepreneur. If you’re a consultant you kind of thrive on your own, but entrepreneurs want to let other people fly and build something together. Now it’s obviously for my benefit mainly because I’m a shareholder but you don’t have a problem sharing with them once they succeed, right? In a way, you’re allowing them the risk free space to succeed without having to put money in the business and when it’s big enough to sharing with them. It’s a nice social contract. But I think that desire to learn to be inspired by the people around you, is much more powerful than being the technical person that will make it whatever. And I think that’s an advantage. I’m quite happy to step back and not control everything, I want them to shape things because it would become a bigger me. But I don’t want that, I want something way beyond me that can have its own life. Because I think we’re there to solve a big problem that nobody is able to solve. So just me trying to go on about and let parents work and not stress them 9 to 5. Will I achieve anything? If I allow the people to do this and what I believe, then we will succeed together better. Maybe I’m an idealist, early adopter.

Audience Question: Thanks, Mark! How did you scale your lawyer base to 1200 people? It looks like your business picked up from 2013 in a short span to 3-4 years. Is it purely word of mouth? Did you throw more money at Google? The other question I have is how do you compete with competitors?

Dana Denis-Smith: Yeah. Very good questions. A lot of it is word of mouth in terms of how we grow the talent. I made – there’s a big of technology when I made a very clear decision that technology is our strategy. It was similar when I decided that increasing the number of lawyers became a clear strategy for the business because everything that I described before when people said how can I rely on your mom because if she’s at the school gate she can’t do anything for me? I realised the only way you can solve this problem is scale because I was running a company that was giving people per hour, very granular availability. People like this would never work at all if it wasn’t for us. So I had to have enough capacity to create comfort. I remember I had 120 lawyers and someone said to me that’s 25 people full time equivalent. So if somebody does the maths and puts it to you, they completely discredit you. They immediately say it’s too small for me. My market was very much the Goldman Sachs of the world. I couldn’t not have an answer too small for me, I had to actually say big enough for you. So I made a clear decision that we’re had to accelerate talent acquisition. It wasn’t google, it was very much around things like home parties, like the Tupperware thing – one lawyer said I know 20 other lawyers. Can you come to my house and tell them about what you want to do? We’ll have tea and biscuits and we’d all about it and they’d all apply. So introduce the recruitment in assessment centres which Uber do but I didn’t know at the time. We’d have them all come together, 12-20 people in one go to accelerate to make it more affordable and quicker to onboard. It was very difficult manually to process that and also to keep on top of it. But I recognise, what I’ve learned from the conversation with Uber is that I value these people from the beginning, they didn’t value their drivers. It’s a very important distinction when you have a supplier led business because that’s what it is when it’s about people and talent. If you don’t pay enough attention to the community and don’t build it in a certain way, they will leave. For me it was really important they stayed.

And how we differ from other market places, I think we have never set out to supply the SME market. A lot of people have said that to me repeatedly. Can you not have a light version and not help SMEs cause they don’t have access to lawyers? To me the spend is too ad-hoc. I cannot run a cash flow with people that would use me once a year. And they are not prepared to commit to a subscription, that maybe they would pay me £20 a month to have access because they would never come back – they’ll spend for a year and then never come back. I recognise from my own experience as a founder bootstrapping that that world will not spend I needed to follow where the volume and money was. For me it was clear this is not a marketplace solution, the large corporates won’t buy in a marketplace environment because they want an enterprise solution. It’s a different market and we’re different because we’re an enterprise solution but I think we’ve learnt a lot from succeeding – we’re in 35% of the FTSE 100. We’ve learned a few things from them, we know which ones are funny about money, and which ones are funny about confidentiality matters. So you can start building a solution that can cross those challenges but be sufficiently tailored to be sticky. Marketplace are all around – here’s the lawyer, you buy it. It’s not my kind of space so I hopefully that answers your question.

Mark Littlewood: From Alex Osterwalder’s talk this morning about finding different market niches and then picking the ones that are going to pay like going for ad hoc work from Goldman Sachs versus me as an SME or other SMEs here. You clearly got your market defined and focused on it. I wanted to ask you about something slightly broader. Do you see lawyers at the moments as people that will work for you for 10-15 years and then go back to an office? I.e. is this – I’m not suggesting that you are a solution purely for working mothers but that’s really where you kind of found this huge pool of talent that is underused and underutilised and really interested in doing something. Do you think these people will go back to work and you’ll lose them from the system or do you think the system is changing and other organisations are accepting outsourced work more and different ways of working?

Dana Denis-Smith: So I think we’ve always been what I call a life in transition business. For me it’s about enabling people to have a strong brand whilst they want to take their foot of the accelerator. Work in a different way but with companies you could say if you go for an interview – typically when I started people said I’m just a mum, nobody wants me. You’re like you’re just a mom that happened to work in one of the largest law firms in the world, that has a first class degree from Oxford, it’s a ridiculous statement. Leaving that aside, she’s doing a lot of work by being a mom. I want to shift the way people look at themselves and say whilst you want to work at a different pace, it doesn’t need to dilute the quality you can bring to the market. This is a life transition and doesn’t go forever. My child is 6 and in 12 years she’ll be like mom I’m out of here. You’re too old or something. She said that to me the other day. I took her on a business trip and she said I love this trip but when I’m older and have children I’m going on a holiday by myself. And I said you wouldn’t invite me? And she said no, you would be too old for me. I was like thanks! That’s great! So I’m not invited! That’s fine, I’m sure the babysitting will be a requirement.

It’s funny and doesn’t go on forever. It’s a conception that if you’re a mom or parent, it’s the end and it gives you an expiry date. So I’m taking away the expiry date and making them last longer. And I think we are very clear proposition there. The competition is stronger than 6 years ago, there’s more people that have tried to address the same supplier base because they realised clients care about diversity and how you engage with your talent because we all do. If you want to run a good business, you need to care about the people in your business. So clients understand it cause they’re on the business side. So they say we have a lot of programs around returning moms, around diversity or whatever, and we expect law firms or suppliers to behave in the same way.

There’s a lot of opportunism around standing for the same thing but I’m not trying to do that, I’m resolving a specific supply issue around you might be doing it for 3-10 years or 6 months because something in 6 months might have changed in your family circumstances. For example, a redundant husband or partner requires you to try and see which ever one get the job first will go into fulltime and the other one will stay at home because we need the money.

Mark Littlewood: I’ve been told that all husbands are redundant.

Dana Denis-Smith: So it’s about recognising that it’s about to me resolving the stress that comes with being a working parent and the pressure and just having that flexibility for as long as you need it. It’s a really valuable thing, to me. So and the idea that people move in and out, for me I say in the professionals, they are all part of the same professional body and are part of the same ecosystem and it’s for me to pick them up in a certain stage in their life but it’s a circle. They will go in and out and I think because of organisations like ours, they’re able to continue that journey where before they’d stop. So we created more, a full circle for them whereas before it was interrupted. And the nice thing when they leave is that they remember and they become our clients which is a great referral scheme.

Audience Question: My question is around, you got the supply side and the client side. Do you consider your service to be just matching those up and getting out of the way or do you try to add value at either end? Helping the lawyers understand – I’m assuming it’s a transition to work, working from home or in different capacity, that they may need help adjusting to that. How much do you address those issues?

Dana Denis-Smith: So we get quite involved and again because it’s a marketplace and it’s not about getting your quotes and one of the lawyers will do it. For me it’s about what is the job to be done? And then what is the right solution to be done around the job? We built the technology, we could have built a marketplace, we had the supplier and client base. We said well, let’s just see if people use it and see if they instruct me in a different way and maybe they’d be happy. Well what I feel is very critical to make flexibility work in a very granular way is to understand the job because otherwise the wrong matching happens. In order to teach a new engine to match correctly, you’ve got to give it the right parameters. I think marketplace is a very different type of algorithm, it’s about whatever skill. And you run the engine, and it says these people look like the right people, and you like their face, you hire them.

In our case it’s about we really need to understand what the job is. Basically what the job is, you can create a team or one person, it can be different and we don’t suggest 3 people but 3 solutions. It’s quite a different, that’s why I say it’s an enterprise approach. It’s about focusing on, you know saying to the client if you want a person it’s going to be the most expensive solution. If you’re allowing [audience question] – no, cause now we’ve done enough, we had different types of delivery. It allows in a way it doesn’t require our intervention. We look at the delivery, so one stage is the matching stage and the second stage is the delivery stage. And we have a team that’s project managing to make sure the quality is there and doesn’t fall and clients are happy. They understand the nature of the legal work and they do spot checks and stuff like that. But for me it’s about not fixating on one individual because that becomes a recruitment model and that is a disfranchising model because the minute they say ‘well I need to leave at 4’ they’ll say well I’ll take the one who’ll stay as long as it’s required. For me the mission around how can I allow this talent not to drop out is predicated on not matching them with the wrong job because then they fall in the test so the client will say she kept wanted to goat 4. It’s a recruitment model that we will push back on the advancements we made around transitions. I need to present everything as a solution that might be a one person or a team solution. Depending on the capacity cause if you look at the job, it requires a week to deliver and it requires x amount of things to happen and then you can say well 3 different people are better solution than just one individual who has a very restrictive set of skills, so you’re better off in a way. But I’m very specific about not becoming a recruiter.

Audience Question: Hi! Your story began as a woman creating a business that would benefit other women. What role has gender played in your business strategy or culture and what can other businesses learn from that?

Dana Denis-Smith: It’s a very good question because I think the way I run the business probably is very kind of female entrepreneur and there’s some things that are very specific, like being fixated on – but actually probably not. It was a bit of a drawback because people were in the biggest sector, very few of the founders are women and very few of the decision makers are women. So I in a way underplayed the card but I think it happens to a lot of us. I didn’t go out to say well actually this would make you tick the boxes, I wasn’t opportunistic enough to say I have a proposition to resolve this problem. I was committed to value proposition and it has to make sense. It mustn’t be seen as a charity which was put to me. And for a long time we referred to my business as a project. Which was very interesting. I was made to feel that somehow I was running either social enterprise or a charity or kind of grant. You know people would say to me are you receiving a lot of grants and I’ve never had a grant in my life. I have no idea where to begin but maybe I’m missing a trick here and I could go and you can get something. And again I didn’t think about it as a software led solution cause at that point I would have been more awake. I don’t know, I think it’s very – you stand out but not always in the right way. I think there’s a lot of cynicism around it. Someone said to me last year we gave you 6 months, we thought it’s a great idea but it will die very quickly. It didn’t have the staying power or the buyers won’t buy. Or there will be law firms that as it happen set up their own flexible pools trying to take us out of the market. They were very aggressive – they tried to undercut the price. But it comes back to this idea and I think it’s not a gender specific one, I think it’s about what I would call the 6-7 years from home where you’re starting life.

What have I learned from if you like my upbringing when I was a child about what is important to me in life? I think by having those boundaries clearly set not being inflexible in a crazy way but understanding what are my limits in terms of what I’m prepared to accept – it guides you and you keep pushing and you stretch. It’s not always a positive definitely but in terms of investors for example, only now we’re getting to be on the radar and people approach us and stuff. I like to think that sort of held me back but the jury is out.

Audience Question: It’s quite a practical question and I’m just curious what happens to your 1200 lawyers during school holidays?

Dana Denis-Smith: That’s why we never stop acquiring new lawyers. Probably by now we have like 1300, 1200 is when I last looked at it, I don’t actually look anymore. We look at every week but I’ve been travelling the past few weeks so I don’t know. This is the answer of capacity, we need to have such a huge amount of people in order not to fluctuate in utilisation terms. So we now have 76% women. We have seen, for example, the next frontier of future work and discrimination specifically around ageism. So we have a lot of experience of men that get pushed out earlier. This is really interesting. You just need to see the signs and it’s quite tragic because a lot of the time we are turning the negative into positive. So those people are willing to work and just make sure the match stays and there’s a very good capacity. But yeah more men are coming through is the answer so I think that kind of balances things. That’s it?

Mark Littlewood: Ok, Dana thank you very much indeed!

Dana Denis-Smith Obelisk Support
Dana Denis-Smith

Dana Denis-Smith

Dana Denis-Smith, ex-lawyer and journalist, founded obelisksupport.com in 2010 to keep City lawyers, especially mothers, working flexibly, around their family or other personal commitments and to provide clients with an affordable and quality legal support.

Obelisk has grown at over 100% a year since foundation and now counts 1,200 lawyers on its books – initially almost exclusively women though men now make up almost 25% of the service providers.

ObeliskSupport was named by The Times as one of UK’s Top 50 Employers for Women in 2015 and 2016 and Dana was described as, “constantly finding new ways to get alternate ways of working accepted and has helped provide a voice of reason in a hotly debated area”.

More from Dana.

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