Mark Britton, founder of Avvo and member of Clio’s board talks with Kevin about working with legal tech startups, and what life has been life since selling Avvo.
Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I speaking with?
Mark Britton: I’m Mark Britton,
Kevin: That took a second.
Mark: Who am I speaking with? Wait a minute, how did I get here?
Kevin: So you’re on the board now at Clio, right?
Mark: I am.
Kevin: How long have you known Jack?
Mark: You know we’ve talked about that. I mean from the very beginning of Clio. I can’t tell you exactly where and when it was, but, you know, Jack started coming to our AVVO conference early on. We had him speaking at our AVVO Conference. And what I loved about Jack from the beginning is that he just, um, pushing the cloud, although in retrospect it seems like such a simple concept in the same way rating attorneys or having a marketplace in tech is such a simple concept. But we connected very early and very strongly because I just thought he had such a great sense for where lawyers needed to go with technology. And, uh, so we met somewhere early on, probably in the conference, maybe the AVVO conference. We connected and we’ve always been close since. I just love the guy. Everybody does for the industry.
Kevin: (1:01) Yeah, and it’s a great culture. I find it inspiring. And I met Jack before they launched the company.
Mark: You met him before we launched our company.
Kevin: Yeah. I guess in both cases you guys sought me out. I have no idea why.
Mark: Because you’re a pain in the…
Kevin: Yeah, try to neutralize the guy.
Kevin: I do remember that. Met in a Starbucks.
Mark: Starbucks in Pioneer Square.
Kevin: These guys were quizzing me for about two to three hours. Basically, I’m hearing, you know, a plan for “how do we take out Martindale?”.
Mark: And it worked.
Kevin: You’re the guy that’s been there. Your company got bought by them?
Mark: Yeah, I know.
Kevin: Now your name is on their side
Mark: Martindale AVVO, it’s wild to see. But the legacy of AVVO will continue.
Kevin: Yeah. So now you’re on the board at Clio, you know, AVVO sold and it’s been sold for how long now?
Mark: A year, year and a half.
Kevin: Yeah. And then you’ve been out doing different things, like making investments. You’re sitting at, you know, you’re sitting in a venture capital enterprise right now.
Mark: I work formally, with Madrone Ventures, which is really the premier northwest, west coast venture capital groups as far as early venture. And then I also do quite a bit of work on a one off basis, not in a formal role with quite a bit of growth equity and one of them resulted in the Clio deal. And also um, private equity.
Kevin: (2:25) Good for you. Are all of those along the West coast? Where are they at?
Mark: No there, I mean a lot of private equity, private equity is everywhere quite honestly. Even though lots of New York, um, yeah, it tends to be tech-oriented and it tends to revolve around uh, kind of white collar, like legal tech, FinTech type stuff.
Kevin: I mean you have have lawyers here or you have entrepreneurs here. Now your work, like you’re working at Madrona and it is a highly respected company. I found myself in there just asking questions of people at times, like “Am I doing the right stuff? Doing the wrong?”
Mark: Really smart people there.
Kevin: Really smart, really smart. I think when I arrived in Seattle, one of the lead partners had run I don’t remember Delta or maybe Burlington Northern Railroad. I’m trying to remember.
Mark: I think it was Jerry Greenstone who was actually also on the Expedia board when I was general council at Expedia. It’s, that’s Jerry Greenstone. Yeah, he is. He’s fantastic.
Kevin: (3:14) You’re sitting there in the reception area are going, “Those guys are behind the wall. How the hell did I get in this place? Yeah, but what’s Mark Britton’s role at these various places at Madrona, you know, on private equity, you know?
Mark: It’s all different.
Kevin: What can it be? Like at Madrona, when you’re involved there what are you doing?
Mark: Well, it’s interesting because I actually have the same title as Jerry Greenstone has. One of the things that Madrone has done very smartly as they take in a number of successful ex-CEOs. So Sutro Patel who founded Isilon, uh, Steve Singh who founded Concur, there’s me, there’s some others. Then two of their founders they have in this “strategic director” role. And um, I mean to be totally fair, I think it’s for those that aren’t necessarily looking to become venture capitalists. I don’t want to be a VC, but I do want to invest and I want to work with interesting companies. So there’s a, there’s a symbiotic relationship there. Where I can help bring them companies, I can help them vet companies. And it for me, selfishly, helps me, you know, stay plugged into the Seattle business community, help entrepreneurs in the way that a lot of people help me be successful at AVVO. And then also I can figure out, I mean, I’ve got a whole team helping me think through or maybe they’re thinking through it and I’m drafting behind, what would be great investments.
Kevin: (4:39) When you think about investments what goes through Mark Britton’s head? And there’s a whole myriad of things, but what are the things that seem to attract you?
Mark: The team. I mean, I really, it’s something that I don’t think is a unique or you know, uh, a revelation for anybody that spends a lot of time investing. But you break it down as there is, I think it starts with the CEO and the people that the CEO has put around him or her. And then um, the size of the market is the next most important thing. And then the idea that they have for that market, I would argue, is the third most important thing because most likely that the idea that they have the inefficiency they found. Like how they’re attacking it will change. Yeah. You need a team that’s big enough to make some mistakes, but you need a team that whatever mistake they make, like whatever wall they hit, they’re going to climb over. And so that’s what just so many great companies have pivoted into being great companies. And so maybe is almost like an insurance policy. You want to focus on the entrepreneur rather than the idea. But if you can hit all three, then that’s where you drive valuation.
Kevin: (5:54) So you’re on the, maybe you’re on the board at AVVO, which is obviously in the legal space, the legal tech space, but the type of opportunities and the type of things that interest you would go beyond legal tech obviously?
Mark: Yeah, I do a lot in travel, not surprisingly. Again, FinTech is something that, you know, you’re looking for those adjacencies and, really I think what I’m best known for is “marketplace”. So AVVO was such a successful marketplace in a, and so just for anybody who is watching this, a marketplace in the most simple sense is where you have two sets of people that are trying to find each other and you act as a facilitator in between. And, so, there are all sorts of interesting marketplaces, but you think of Zillow or AVVO or Yelp.
Kevin: And you went back to the travel. I mean, you go back.
Mark: Well, like TripAdvisor would be an informational marketplace. But, um, so now I’ve got a little off track and explaining marketplaces. Oh. So I’m, you know, I think what I’m most known is for somebody in a really hard industry and actually two, because you remember we did doctors too and sold out to HealthTown. So there is at least the perception whether it’s founded or not, that “Hey, getting something started that in an industry, in a vertical that is that difficult, can we talk to you about our marketplace idea and sell them as that in legal?”
Kevin: (7:32) If you had a, you know, small legal tech company here and there’s a lot of them here, some are exhibiting, some are just walking around and trying to absorb the space and they’d come up and said, “Mark, what should I be thinking about? What should I be doing”
Mark: There have been no less than 10 of them that hit me already.
Mark: Oh yeah. People that are either quite developed and presenting or there are a number of people who are just in the process of getting businesses off the ground.
Kevin: You’re not a bad person to talk to for them.
Mark: Yeah. It’s, it is hard though in this environment to get the whole download to give them the full feedback. But I appreciate it. Like there was a gentleman that came and sat with me. Um, I was kind of running in between a media stuff including this. I was trying to grab a bite to eat and he stopped and said, “Hey, let me tell you about this, content marketplace that I’m trying to build”. And it was a super interesting discussion. Um, but mostly I just appreciate it. And anybody that’s trying to do something different, I want to give them some of my time. Uh, because like it’s hard getting these businesses off the ground is incredibly hard.
Kevin: That’s why I talk to the entrepreneurs a lot. “Why did you do it? What was the hardest moment?”. What was the hardest moment at AVVO? Maybe it was deciding that you were going to sell?
Mark: I think there were a lot. Getting sued nine days after we launched, that was hard.
Kevin: What’s that lawyers name?
Mark: Which one? John Henry?
Kevin: You had a good lawyer defining you.
Mark: There’s an implication you made to that.
Kevin: (9:03) No, Bruce, wasn’t Bruce Johnson defending you?
Mark: He was defending us.
Kevin: That’s what I mean. Bruce Johnson was defending you. You had a great lawyer.
Mark: Bruce’s, I’ll tell you on that. Being a lawyer, I was always told that you never guarantee anything for the client. I was, we were. You’ve got to understand that I both from a product standpoint and from a media standpoint, I mean I had been working day and night for months and I was at the end of my rope like you launch a big consumer product like that that’s in the spotlight. It just almost killed me and then we get sued nine days later. I remember going into their office, so spent, I mean, I was a mess. I was just crumpled in the seat. Bruce and his partner said, “okay, walk us through the whole thing”. We walked through it and Bruce said, “you realize you’re going to win this case”.
Kevin: I could see him saying that.
Mark: And it was like a huge cloud being lifted to have that type of first Amendment, one of the best known first amendment lawyers in the United States.
Kevin: He could look and compartmentalized things so fast. He’ll get very clear on the message, he’d say, “this is what’s likely to happen”.
Mark: No, and we used Bruce for all sorts of stuff after that. I mean Davis Wright is a phenomenal firm and he is just an exceptional lawyer.
Kevin: Yeah. And to me it was, it was cool to watch it play out on first amendment grounds like, “we have the right to do this”. Oh, there were people that are called me or I called them and I’d say, “what do you think?”. They’d go “I think they’re going to go out of business in 60 days”.
Mark: Yeah, well, they were wrong.
Kevin: And then there were some major players in there and they were wrong. And it wasn’t LexisNexis.
Mark: (10:50) Yeah, it was scary. It was hard. Um, I just, what was really hard about it is they were fairly media savvy. They knew their way around media. And so, for example, they called down anyone who had done an article on us that was favorable or unfavorable and called them and told them a story. What a lot of people don’t understand and even reporters don’t understand, is that just because it’s in a complaint doesn’t make it true.
Kevin: That’s right.
Mark: And so, you know, they would mail that complaint and tell the story. And it was really, I spent, so I talked about the two weeks, two months that were, um, I mean it was really acute on the media front that two weeks going into launch and then I had another, at least two weeks, where I would literally sit in a conference room with the head of PR and all day long do media interviews trying to tell the story.
Kevin: Persuade, yeah.
Mark: And because everybody was convinced that we were up to no good. Okay.
Unidentified Person: Oh, sorry are you in an interview?
Mark: Good to see you
Kevin: We’re gonna talk, we’ll be just about done.
Kevin: It’s not funny to you, but I mean, you guys went so far beyond that, that I don’t even remember that anymore. You, have it delled in your skull.
Mark: (11:52) It was so impacting at the time. But yeah, I mean there were, I just don’t think you can run a business without a series of highs and lows. Anyone thinks that they’re going to get away with the lows need to go do something else.
Kevin: I remember when our platform went down, it was first 15 hours, you know, I’m putting my head over the top of the urinal going, “it’s not supposed to be this hard. Somehow we’re going to recover from this”.
Mark: I’ll tell you one of the things around selling AVVO that really drove it home for me, is I remember my wife, who is a lawyer and used to be a big firm lawyer, and she gets it. She gets the stress that goes in kind of big corporate life. She was kind of bulletproof and that it was never an issue that my wife raised about whether me being on the road or me not calling or working late or whatever it was. And when we were talking about whether we should sell the company, she turned around and said, “quite honestly, I’d just like to have my husband back”. And that was like, it was, I don’t think I knew. So you talk about “standing at the urinal”. I would come home for dinner so many times and my wife would be like “Talk. You need to keep your mouth moving”.
Kevin: (13:10) Yeah. It doesn’t happen. You’re just, you’re thinking about something else.
Mark: I’m still at the office and the kids are there and they don’t totally see it. So anyway, uh, having her so forcefully say “it’s time”.
Kevin: How old are your kids now?
Mark: I just sent one off to college, which is fascinating for me.
Kevin: But you have plenty of time. A great time to sell your company.
Mark: It’s perfect.
Kevin: For you to spend time with the kids, to get this time in life, to step back.
Mark: And my son’s going to school up in Boston and I was able to go back and forth with him multiple times. No, I would’ve never been able to do that. No, it’s the greatest gift. It really is. And so I have two still at home. They’re just awesome, wonderful, fun kids. And my wife as well. It just, that is where I’m, if there’s anything, I mean I’m still finding my feet a little bit, but if there’s anything that really feels stable, it’s that time that I can spend with my family.
Kevin: Some night when you guys are out to eat and you’ll be talking about some deal more often than other one than me. It’s like, wow, are you going to get involved in this thing again or do that?
Mark: Yeah. That’s a tough one.
Kevin: You’re young, you’re young guy. I mean it could happen again. You don’t know.
Mark: Yeah, I think I would, I don’t know exactly what that looks like. I’m open to anything. If it moves the world forward in some way. Like I have an idea, like I actually focused on an idea for about three months that I know would make money, but then I stopped myself and I was like, “really the only thing this does is makes me money”. And it was more around the advertising space and I was like, “is that, that’s not”. I was having a tough time. I was spending a lot of time with a really smart guy that’s a younger developer engineer type and I just was having a tough time getting back to him. And what had dawned on me is “this is just about money” and that’s not what I want to go do next.
Kevin: (15:05) When you spoke at the last, you know, conference after announced AVVO was sold and you had a picture of the highway or going up the mountains and you know, “where does the road take you?”. And you could kind of sense, “I’m a little bit hollow, and I’m going to need to find something that was meaningful. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what that is yet. And I’ll find it at some point in time”. Um, but there’s a lot of truth to that. If you get as old as I am, then it becomes all that much more important. You know, I have to tell my team “we have to do something meaningful”. We have to focus on like the most meaningful thing is even if it’s not the money thing.
Mark: Yeah. And it’s the speech that I just gave. You know, the Clio folks asked me to give this speech and I was like, “yeah, happy to do it”. But one of the things I talk about is the core purpose and a lot of organizations and especially a lot of law firms really struggle getting to the “why?” and you know, “why do they exist? Why do their customers choose them over anybody else?”. They don’t ask those questions.
Kevin: (16:05) And in a company, you’re all always asking me,
Mark: Always. You Know, all the best leaders are, they’re constantly peeling back the onion to say, “Why?”. You know, once you distill it down, “the why” of that core purpose, mission, whatever you want to call it, everything kind of rolls out pretty easily behind it. Especially, you know “the how”, and “the what”.
Kevin: I mean, I don’t know what, you’re a better CEO than I ever was.
Mark: I don’t know we’ve never worked together. You might be amazing.
Kevin: The way you grew that team and the way then they took their place and they took on greater responsibility and you added even more talented people, but I struggle with at times, remember that it’s “the why” we do things. And “why do people select us” as opposed to somebody else? Because that’s the thing we have to think about. And then you guys will figure out how we’re going to deliver that cause you guys, cause you’re smarter than me and in the functions you’re in.
Mark: And a lot of CEO’s, a lot of leaders in general, really have a tough time letting go like that.
Kevin: Very hard, very hard for me all the time. I’m up to so much. I’m much less “let go, let go”.
Mark: I’m so much lazier than you. I don’t know. Maybe people that worked with me would disagree. But no, I, you know, Rich Barton, who was very involved with AVVO was one of the greatest leaders of all time, really.
Kevin: (17:18) Great guy.
Mark: And I remember him saying to me when we were, uh, so I was off teaching in Italy, kind of got the whole spark for this thing. And rich actually came out. We went on a bike trip together with our families in Southern Italy. Kind of pitched him on this essentially, Zillow for lawyers. And he was like, “I love it. It’s so simple, but I love it”. And so then he came back and I’ll keep this story a much shorter. Oh, I came back from Italy and, um, we were sitting down having, I mean, he was just instrumental in helping connect me early on with some people like Bill Gurley at Benchmark, et cetera. To help us, kind of get up onto the next phase of fundraising or what have you. But I remember him saying, actually I’ll give you two things he told me. On the lawsuit that we talked about, I remember him telling me in a board meeting, “if it’s not scary, it’s not important”.
Kevin: That’s right.
Mark: I was like, “that made me feel so much better”. Then the other was, he said, “you will only succeed if you surround yourself with a bunch of smart people and let them run the company”. I so followed that in really the investment that I made. I just went out and found like the smartest people, especially from Expedia early on that I could.
Kevin: (18:50) Yeah. I mean there’s a lot of truth to that because the more they grow and the more exciting there is for them to be around and you watch them. I tell the team, the most rewarding thing for me is to watch you guys grow. And I said, “if you do decide to leave at some point in time because of what you came here and what you learned”, I said, “that’s incredibly great”. Now the other employees that watch those people leave they get very, like “that was mean of them to do that”. I said, “I don’t know”.
Mark: I read something really pithy that says it so much better than I can say it. Maybe it’ll come to me. Even in speeches to groups of lawyers, I’ve often said, “train people to leave you”. Yeah. And I tell the story of a Miami lawyer that said to me, “I can’t train people to do what I do and when I do, they leave”. And I just so wanted to say to her that, “what you do is you train them to leave, but then you give them reasons to stay”.
Kevin: Yes, exactly. When I started my first law firm, best associate came and he said, you know, I could go to any firm in town, I said, “I hope so”. I said, “I’m working really hard to help you be really great. You are already good”. I said, “hopefully I can retain you”.
Mark: I mean do you really want to keep your people untrained so that you’d have a bunch of dummies that’s surround you. It just doesn’t work. You see that kind of philosophy rear its head over and over and so, yeah, I think leaders, you know,
Kevin: That’s like your talk. I mean this is how law firms are thinking versus you who is the CEO of a good company you’re thinking that way, “How do I hire great people and help them better at what they do so they could go anywhere they want in their life?”.
Mark: And then give them a reason to stay. And usually you know that person that’s thinking about leaving or you feel that they might be thinking about leaving, then give them another chunk of the business. Then they’ll go build their own
Kevin: “You want a chunk of the action?”.
Mark: “Take it, take a third, take whatever it is”, but whatever the percentage is, that’s called leverage. It is so antithetical to so many lawyer managers.
Kevin: It was fun to talk with you. Maybe do it sometime over a coffee in Seattle.
Mark: It was great seeing you. Yeah, sure seeing as we’re more than just down the street. It’s always good to see you. I love what you guys do.
Kevin: We’re trying. We’re trying to do different stuff now.