Predators vs. Aliens or Attorneys vs. Entrepreneurs

June 22, 2011

12:30 pm

Last week’s Tech Cocktails Startup Mixology Conference featured two panel discussions that couldn’t have been more different. I had the pleasure of mediating a session, Necessary Legal Paperwork, with 3 bright corporate attorneys, Sue Wang of Clarity Law, Steve Kaplan of Pillsbury Law, and Geoff Willard of Virtual Law Partners.  These are sharp, experienced attorneys, and they practically led themselves through the session.  They took turns, deferred to each other, answered the questions asked.  Heck, they made my job easy.

Then there was the panel led by David Steinberg, The Realities of Funding, comprised of entrepreneurs and investors: Jill Stelfox, Daniel Odio, Christopher M. Schroeder, Bobby Ocampo, John May.  The moderator, David, is an experienced and very successful serial entrepreneur, yet he struggled to control this group.  Now mind you, this wasn’t through any lack of experience or skill on Mr. Steinberg’s part. No, the difference in the chaos-factor was because leading a group of law-abiding, rule following barristers is as easy as herding sheep, while leading a group of rule-breaking, ruffian entrepreneurs and VCs is like running with the bulls in Pamplona.

Startup Mixology was a fantastic event for the DC technology community, and the crew at Tech Cocktail did a fabulous job putting together an interesting and valuable program.  But I have one piece of advice for them the next time they plan a conference:  You don’t need a moderator for a legal panel.  Give the attorneys the Marquess of Queensberry’s rule book, and those solid professionals will play by the rules.  But you can’t ask anyone to moderate a bunch of rabid startup CEOs and investors and expect the moderator to do any better than Ahab did chasing his white whale.

Rules?! What rules?  Entrepreneurs don’t need no stinkin’ rules.  Now I’m not saying that the entrepreneur session wasn’t enlightening, interesting and entertaining.  On the contrary, it may have been the best session of the conference.  I’m just saying that it would have been nice if one panelist answered at least one of the questions they were asked.  Instead, it was mayhem.  Pure entertaining informative mayhem.

And it reminded me that if you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re not fighting and arguing with your attorney, one of you isn’t doing your job.  You see, an entrepreneur’s job is to push the envelope, while the corporate attorney’s job is to mitigate risk.  See the dichotomy? Risk taker versus risk averter.

After watching the entrepreneur/investor panel, I posed my theory of conflict to Sue Wang and was surprised by her response. Sue said, “Some attorneys view their job as saying no and avoiding risk.  My job isn’t to just say no.  My job is to understand what my client wants to accomplish and help them achieve that.”

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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