Matthew Rippon from Particular LegalIn Seth Godin’s ‘StartUp School’, the great man is asked about his experience of using lawyers whilst starting a business.  He tells how, in his last year at Stanford, he started a business with a couple of friends and they managed to scrape together $5000 to invest in it.  The university pushed them into taking legal advice – this was long before the days of Eric Ries and the ‘lean’ theory that dominates start-up culture these days.

Seth describes how the lawyer charged him $3000 of the $5000 he had in order to incorporate the company and put everything in order. Remember, this was in the mid-80s, when $3000 was a lot of money.  Unsurprisingly, the business folded a year or two later and the only person really to benefit was the lawyer.

If you have been through the process of starting your own business, you’ll be aware of just how precious cash is.  It is difficult to justify setting a lot of money aside for professional fees when you’re worried about paying the electricity bill and the rent.  But when you can no longer resist that nagging voice you hear in the middle of the night and do pluck up the courage to make an appointment with Big Law LLP, it doesn’t help when the lawyer you see gives you a list as long as your arm of tasks you need him (or her) to carry out RIGHT NOW!  You know the sort of thing:

• incorporation
• shareholders’ agreement
• director’s service contracts
• employment terms
• freelancer agreements
• privacy policy
• terms of use for your website
• terms and conditions of sale
• review of bank documents
• procurement terms
• trade mark registration
• data protection notification
• distribution agreements
• blah blah blah

And before you know it, all your money has been spent on the legals.  In the event that the business is a sustainable success immediately with little further need of cash, you’re sorted.  For everyone else though, the £1000s you’ve just spent is likely to be a significant overspend at best, or a complete waste of money at worst.  But at least you’re keeping the law firm’s equity partners in cushy new Mercedes leather seats, so that’s something at least.

Because we specialise in the commercialisation process, we deal with a lot of start-ups.  I mean A LOT of start-ups.  That’s because most innovation is done by early stage companies, so it’s not surprising.  We try to put time into those start-ups because most of them will become clients eventually, if not right away.  Not having much in the way of spare cash ourselves, you could say that this time is our marketing spend.

But the key with start-ups is to work out what they really definitely absolutely have to do with a lawyer right now.  And the honest answer for most of them is… well, not a whole lot.

So you’re average growth-oriented start-up will already have incorporated. It won’t want a shareholders’ agreement because it will be looking for equity investment and the investment agreement will stand as the shareholders’ agreement going forward. Yes, it’ll need some help with the employment terms for directors and workers, but this probably doesn’t have to be bespoke at this stage.  It’s likely to be some way off being market ready, so terms and conditions etc are not a big issue.  And brand protection is something that you need to worry about in the immediate run up to your launch, but it’s probably a risk you can afford to run until then.  And if you don’t want to risk it, you can do it yourself, with a bit of guidance.

The question is, how do you access that kind of advice.  How do we find you?  Back in the money-laden days of ONE Northeast, programmes were plentiful, allowing us to earn a modest living delivering workshops and clinics with rooms, projectors, tea and coffee all supplied.  Nine times out of ten, these programmes were entirely free to attend, which meant that on average, about 20% of those who registered didn’t attend and about another 20% failed to make it through to the end.

But nobody is paying us to deliver workshops these days.  In fact, one well-known local QUANGO recently asked us to pay them for the privilege of delivering further workshops for them.  We politely refused.

We still need to find you.  You still need to find us.

Fortunately for us all, most people who are starting a business don’t stand on ceremony.  The marble halls of Dickinson Dees are one of our best marketing tools.  If you want the biggest law firm in the region, use them not us.  If you don’t, why pay their rates?  And if you don’t want to pay their rates, you probably aren’t fussed about their conference suites and cocktails on tap.  Well, they don’t have cocktails on tap. I made that bit up.

Being officeless (and paperless and secretaryless), we spend a lot of time meeting clients and colleagues in the cafés of the north of England.  And we spend a lot of time engaged in social media.  So I thought, why not have a crack at staging a clinic ourselves.  In a café that everyone knows, marketing it via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+.  I asked people to get in touch and make free half hour appointments, even last minute if necessary.  But I knew that even if nobody did, I’d still have to go and sit in the café for the day.  That’s not such a chore, really, is it?

But they did come.  Six of them.  All start-ups or early stage businesses.  None of them existing clients and only one of them properly known to me (a certain Vicki Stone Marketing).  They came.  They bought cake, They talked.  And we started the process of building a relationship.

I called it The #CafeClinic.  And I’m going to do more of them.  So if you see a tweet mentioning a future #CafeClinic or a LinkedIn status confirming where and when, could you do us and the nation’s start-up community a favour and just pass it on?  We might even buy you a coffee…