Happy Birthday to Us: 5 Startup Lessons We've Learned as Startup Attorneys

Today is our birthday--August 20th is the day we formed Prywes Schwartz, PLLC with New York State--and we have learned a number of lessons over the past year. We, too, are a startup, and we modeled our law business after successful startups in other fields. Already, there have been plenty of failures and successes that seemed to come from nowhere, and we know that a year from now, we will be looking at our business in a whole new light. Here are some do's and don't's we've picked up over this past year:

Lesson #1: Do tell your story and build your identity. Our potential clients and current clients never forget us. Because of wood. Wood, Jerry! Our business cards are made of wood. Our holiday cards are made of wood. We send handwritten letters to our clients on wood. Why? That's our brand. Wood is the stuff from which houses and furniture are made. It is raw material. It was a perfect way to demonstrate to our clients and colleagues that we are here to help people start from scratch. We are a different kind of firm. And they seem to love it. We also have our slogan to hone our brand: "Behind Every Great Entrepreneur is a Proud Lawyer." We love it because it is true, even if most people don't imagine their lawyers as wistful. But there is nothing greater than being there at the beginning, when that first spark of creativity ignite hopes and dreams...

Lesson #2: Don't commit long-term unless you know know for sure it's worth it. One of our first expenditures was on a highly-regarded and fairly expensive marketing automation platform. We were paying hundreds of dollars a month on bells and whistles, most of which we ignored. And we were locked into an annual contract. Big mistake. Huge mistake. We thought we would use all of the services this company offered, but discovered that most of them were not pertinent to us. Fact is, when starting out, there's a reason why successful entrepreneurs advise staying lean. Taking a short-batch approach allows a new business flexibility. That means preparing to scale, preparing to change course, and preparing to cut bait. We do, of course, have some long-term commitments, but only those which provide ongoing guidance, ease-of-use, cost savings, and expertise we could foresee needing for the next year or two.

Lesson #3:  Do learn to say, "No." This is a tough one, because we want to serve everyone, but we can't. Legally, we can't. We are only admitted in New York; we can't practice in New Jersey or Connecticut. We decided together that we do not litigate; our business is prospective, not retrospective. But we sometimes even have to turn down potential clients, because their goals may not match ours. This is an important thing for startups to remember: even when there are financial opportunities, it is necessary to say no more often than yes, because a short-term decision can weigh down a new business in such a way as to occupy all of the business's resources. Especially time, which is the most valuable resource in business and in life. An endless time suck is death to a startup.

Lesson #4: Don't depend on other platforms for the bulk of your business. Facebook is a wonderful way to connect with people in a low-key way. Organic search through Google can make or break certain businesses. But an entrepreneur has no control over those platforms. This past year, Facebook enacted a formal policy of de-emphasizing the appearance of Pages in a News Feed that were not assisted by ad buys or post boosts. Google regularly tweaks its algorithm, affecting small businesses' rankings.  While people find us via Facebook and Google, as well as prominent attorney search platforms such as Avvo and Justia, we find that people who have been referred to our site by enthusiastic customers or potential customers are even more likely to engage. Word-of-mouth is so important. So is useful content. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) inures to the benefit of those who have site visitor sit and read for awhile. Every startup should provide good reasons to visit early and often.

Lesson #5: Do spread your wings but don't stray too far from your wheelhouse. I spent a large portion of my grownup life immersed in the arts and media. Todd Schwartz has spent a large portion of his life as a lawyer immersed in real estate. It shouldn't be surprising that those practice areas attract more clients to Prywes Schwartz, PLLC than others. Startups should start out "narrow and deep"--i.e. narrowly focused and deeply understood, with an expectation of manageable scale-ability to broader and deeper. Never go shallow. However, we know that the various elements that make up a successful business require much more than a deep understanding of a few things. In addition to contracts and leases, a successful entrepreneur must anticipate matters related to (and enthusiastically familiarize herself/himself with) intellectual property, labor/employment/wage and hour, negotiation, corporate norms and federal and state regulations, just to name a few. Nobody has been forced to start a small business. With a strong intellectual curiosity, a healthy stomach for risk, an appreciation for little victories, and a vision for the years ahead, an entrepreneur can consider a year spent growing each part of a business to be a success. Here's to a year's worth of success!

Related: 20 Books Every Creative Entrepreneur Should Read