Boole start-up of the week: StartEd

25 May 2015

Photo of Four Courts, Dublin by Semmick Photo via Shutterstock

Our start-up of the week is StartEd, a company that points start-ups and entrepreneurs in the right direction when it comes to understanding the myriad of legal issues that come with running a business.

“StartEd runs award-winning events where entrepreneurs can get start-up-related legal advice from experienced advisers,” explained founder Naoise Gaffney.

“Law students sit in on the conversation to see the law being applied in the real world and to get real-world commercial skills.”

Start-ups working for start-ups

As Gaffney explains it, the target market is pre-revenue start-ups that typically can’t afford to spend lots of money on compliance issues but need a steer to ensure they start out on solid legal ground.

“We noticed a substantial gap in the market as most professional advisers only get involved with start-ups as they are in the process of raising funding.

“We wanted to create a ‘real-world’ support system for start-ups before they raised funding to optimise their chances of success. This is an enormous market and we have already supported more than 1,000 start-ups globally, many of which have gone on to receive substantial investment.”

StartEd founders

Gaffney is a patent attorney with a background in science and software.

“In my day job I work in-house for a US corporate, but I used to work in a private legal practice. I also lecture on intellectual property in TCD [Trinity College Dublin], and am a director of a Dublin-based, Japan-focused indie games VC fund.

“My co-founder, Eric Klotz, is legal counsel for an Irish-venture-backed start-up, Datahug, having previously worked in science and law in the UK for a number of years. Initially, we set this up as a hobby, just because we are passionate about the space, but the project has quickly taken on a life of its own and expanded rapidly.”

Naoise Gaffney, StartEd

Naoise Gaffney, co-founder, StartEd

How StartEd works

“The project is event-focused, so strictly speaking isn’t ‘tech’ in nature,” Gaffney explained.

“That said, it does leverage event-based platforms such as, Eventbrite, and other event-based portals to gain traction in the start-up community. In Dublin, our events are run monthly in incubators and workspaces around the city, and are pretty informal.

“Start-ups with legal queries typically come to the event and are seen by an experienced adviser on a first-come, first-served basis, or as part of a roundtable discussion on a particular legal theme.

“A lot of different law firms support the programme, but we are keen to work with any law firm that shares our ethos and sees the value in what we are doing.

“In Dublin, our events have seen advisers from William Fry, Tomkins, and Leman attend. There is also scope to bring in other types of expertise, and Dublin has also seen a number of appearances from Ernst & Young [EY], as well as a number of leading tech entrepreneurs. The NDRC and Wayra have been very generous in providing a venue for our events.”

StartEd’s goal

Gaffney says StartEd wants to disrupt the way legal advice is provided and accessed by early-stage, pre-revenue start-ups.

“Often these companies – who are on tiny budgets – don’t need detailed legal advice, just a general steer. The standard business model law firms usually pursue simply doesn’t accommodate these needs. The law firms we work with are starting to see how giving basic guidance at our events – even though it’s pro bono – can be of benefit to them in the medium to long term.

“They get to build relationships with start-ups at a really early stage, and they also get to run the rule over the next crop of would-be employees (the law students). Even better, they are seen to be giving back to the community in a genuine ‘no-strings-attached’ way.

“Because we get advisers from a variety of firms at our events, we find that the start-ups are much happier to attend and to open up about their problems. Often, when law firms run their own proprietary events of this sort, entrepreneurs who have never engaged a service provider before can be very wary, looking for the catch.

“StartEd takes the tension out of that dynamic. The model has proven highly successful in multiple countries to date, and it can extend to other professional services beyond the law.”

Gaffney says he also wants to help students who attend StartEd to develop some “start-up skills” that he says are invaluable transferable commercial experience not otherwise easily accessible through conventional university programs.

“This can be a huge value-add to the university courses that we plug into.”

StartEd Meet-up

A StartEd meet-up at NDRC in Dublin’s Digital Hub

London calling

Gaffney says there is considerable demand for StartEd events and they are running them in Dublin, London, Liverpool and Tokyo.

“We are also looking to get recurring events running in New York. As Eric and I are native Dubliners, we’d both really like to put Ireland at the centre of this network and fly the flag internationally for Ireland Inc while continuing to support the ecosystem at home.

“We’ve already had a few enquires from start-ups thinking about coming to Ireland or setting up in Ireland that we have received through the wider StartEd network, and we’ve been able to make some introductions to relevant people in Ireland on that basis. It was also through the work I was doing with StartEd when I was in Japan that I have ended up as a director in an indie games venture-capital firm.

“While this is where we want to get to, we’ve more or less reached capacity in Dublin at the moment. While we run StartEd for passion not profit, in order to systematically support the start-up scene in Dublin (and hopefully other parts of Ireland) we need to leverage financial backing from our partners – government organisations, law firms, universities and perhaps even investors.

“To date, StartEd Dublin has not had any financial backing and it has been run in our own spare time and out of our own pockets. While we’d love to keep Dublin at the centre of our universe, we find ourselves being drawn more and more to London, where the programme has expanded so that it is now sponsored by law firms and also financially backed by a number of government initiatives, including the UK Intellectual Property Office and the Legal Education Foundation.

“Universities in the UK also contribute financially because the educational element of the program provides their students with unique real-world learning experiences in start-ups. We want to emulate that success in Ireland and build on it.”

Start in Ireland, grow in the US

Gaffney said that one of the immediate challenges was trying to convince law firms to provide free support to start-ups.

“However, now we have lots of law firms wanting to help out, not only looking to support our programme but also to sponsor it – demonstrating their growing willingness to support start-ups, new technologies and innovation.

“Universities are also increasingly becoming aware that programmes such as ours are critical at providing students with employment opportunities and skills, far above and beyond conventional classroom lectures.”

He says that while the Irish start-up scene is very exciting, the UK ecosystem wins out simply because of its sheer size. Despite this, Ireland still seems to be punching above its weight on a per capita basis.

“As anyone will tell you, Ireland is far more accessible than large EU and US cities. For example, Dublin is one of the few places you can wander into a pub and bump into a couple of highly-successful tech founders, a high-profile employee from Apple’s early days and a couple of leading European venture capitalists – that wasn’t even during the Web Summit! We also have an increasing number of successful entrepreneurs who are feeding back know-how (and war stories) into the ecosystem, and this is helping Ireland develop in a very exciting way.”

For start-ups who want to go global fast, however, Gaffney says they need to look to the US as early as possible.

“Ireland is a great place to set up and start your business and you can get up and running very fast. That said, if you’re in tech, it’s definitely worth trying to establish a base in the US early on and test your product in the wider market – whether in New York, San Francisco or elsewhere.

“Ultimately, this is where the largest customer base and funding opportunities are for a lot of growing technology companies.”

Boole start-up of the week: Celebrating independent thinkers for George Boole’s Bicentenary, in association with University College Cork.

Photo of Four Courts, Dublin by Semmick Photo via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years