Video Interview with LexBlog: Casey Kuhlman on His Incredible Journey to Founding a Legal Tech Startup

Full transcript and video below

Video courtesy of lexblog - you can also watch the video here

When down at Legal Geek 2018 conference in London, Casey was interviewed by Kevin O’Keefe, CEO of LexBlog, as part of his Legal Tech Founders Series. The full interview is transcribed below:

Kevin O’Keefe: I’m here with Casey Kuhlman. You’re the founder of– what’s the name of the company?

CSK: Monax.

KO: Monax. What does Monax do?

CSK: We’re a user interface and integration provider over a soon-to-be-launched blockchain ecosystem called the Agreements Network.

KO: And that’s a mouthful. When I go to conferences and people are talking about blockchain, it gives me a headache after a while but I try to understand it. Describe that to a person if you’re sitting in a pub, saying this is what we’re going to be able to do with this solution, For a lawyer that’s really unfamiliar with the concept.

CSK: Sure, so one of the things that, at a real core level, a blockchain offers is it provides us with a collaborative data and events management infrastructure. There’s been a long history of wanting to leverage computers to manage and operate contractual agreements for us, but that’s really come to a head and there’s always been a challenge, which is this: If you and I are in a contract and we want the computers to run the contract because we think that’s a good idea, the question becomes whose computers are going to run this contract? When I say run the contract, that could be anything from calculating a late delivery penalty to just tracking that I sent the goods on a particular day. Well, if we marry this long established need to have computers help us move transactional and legal documents into the digital age with what blockchains can give us in terms of collaboratively manage data and events in infrastructure, what we can do is get around this question of whose computers are going to run the contract, by all of our computers are going to run the contract.

KO: And that’s where your solution can come into play, right?

CSK: Well, us and others. So, it’s a collaborative open ecosystem that anyone can join.

KO: Why you? How did you start this? It’s not like you wake up one morning and say, “This is what I’m going to do.”

CSK: I could go back. I’ve had quite a winding journey to where I am now. I’m probably one of the very few entrepreneurs that’s ran my own law firm in Somalia, for example.

KO: Well, you’re always an entrepreneur when you start your own law firm. I did the same thing. When did you start this?

CSK: We started our company 4 years ago.

KO: And then what was it that made you start it, were you practicing law then?

CSK: I was.

KO: So what was it that made you say, “Okay. I want to do this and I see the opportunity? What was it?”

CSK: The big opportunity that I saw was, was an ability to help my clients move beyond paper based documents into managing systems digitally. I had a lot of small business focus clients in a very poor country on earth, at this time I was in Somalia, and they were actually digitally savvy enough that they would much prefer a digital solution that could do this than a paper-based solution. That’s where I was when I stumbled across a blockchain technology and I stumbled across it because I was one of the only, probably the only western-oriented lawyer in that jurisdiction. Because of that I would get a lot of work for multinationals wanting to do a global survey of business record retention policies. And so a big law firm would call me because I was probably the only person in Somalia who they could talk to. The question then becomes “How do they pay me?” because Somalia isn’t integrated into the global financial systems. So I had a whole system that I had set up in order to get the money that a law firm might pay you in terms of wire transfer into cash in hand that I could actually pay my rent, and a piece of that pipeline during de-risking that was happening in late 2013, early 2014 was very much threatened. Because of that I started looking at Bitcoin initially, which a lot of people at that time were touting as the saviour to the remittance industry. Then from there I realized that this technology solves this real fundamental problem that I was talking about before, of actually opening up for us a space for the computers to start running the contract.

KO: Are you still practicing law?

CSK: No, I went non-practicing when we started Monax.

KO: Yeah. Why do that? Why leap from, okay, I’m practicing law, I have some way to make a living, over here I’m going to start Monax, no assurance that it’s going to be a huge success. How were you able to do that, and to cope with, I don’t know if it was fear at some extent, but you’re driven by optimism at the same time, and the idea…

CSK: Absolutely. Before I was a lawyer, I was a Marine for example, and one of the things I always said when I was a Marine in the US was that we’re there to kick the door in and hold it open long enough for others to flood through. I like going first. That’s what makes me excited is going to areas which are kind of unknown, that are sort of on the edge, and building things that hopefully matter. And so that’s why when I saw this opportunity open up, for me it was a relatively natural transition. I am historically a lawyer by training and a technologist by habit. I’ve been programming since I was six and so I was always interested in finding a space where I could merge those two passions in a way that made sense to me.

KO: Where are you based now?

CSK: I live in Edinburgh.

KO: Okay. And what’s your market where you’re reaching for customers that use your product?

CSK: For the Monax product we’re still pre-product, to be clear. We will be launching our product later this year.

KO: Where do you see the market?

CSK: Our early adopter class will be tech startups predominantly.

KO: Okay. How are you funding it and supporting yourself?

CSK: We’re a venture-backed company.

KO: How difficult was it for you to go out and get that venture capital support?

CSK: The initial bits came to us and we, in the very early days of smart contract enabled blockchains, were one of the few groups of people, me and my co-founders, that were really touting this as a solution that made business sense.

KO: Where were you touting it? How were people hearing about it?

CSK: Writings, mostly and code around those writings. We were lucky enough in our initial founder class, I’m sorry, our initial investor class, to have some early believers that where we were going resonated and they saw this as being the last predominant business system in terms of legal contracts that hasn’t moved into the digital age, which means if you can get it right, if you can be the platform or the ecosystem that can move contracting into the digital age, you’re looking at a hefty opportunity.

KO: Had you ever raised capital before?

CSK: No, that was new.

KO: Had your co-founder?

CSK: None of my co-founding class had. It was new to all of us.

KO: So imagine somebody looking at you and saying, “Boy, you really must have known this stuff, you knew how to raise money and get venture capital” and you’re laughing now. How did you navigate that maze?

CSK: Carefully.

KO: Did you have to get a lawyer to help you or were you guys able to do it?

CSK: Of course, you never want to be your own lawyer. I mean, we were three co-founders, two of us were lawyers, two of us had practiced transactional law, but you never want to be your own lawyer. You asked about whether I’m practicing or not, for me, I took the practicing hat off and I did it for a reason, because it’s very different being a lawyer and running a tech-focused start-up. Then I realized a lot of lawyers run their own business. But, you know, when you are a lawyer, you have a capability of being very black and white. It’s us versus them. You know, we’re on this side of the deal, they’re on that side of the deal, and you can be much more clear about here’s the lines, et cetera. But when you’re on the business side of that relationship, you don’t necessarily have that luxury, particularly early stage, you have to live in the gray area.

KO: What’s funny is how I might be telling my legal counsel, they’ll say “this is what it is,” I’m not going to worry about it, I’m going to move on and do this thing. I can’t slow down. When I started my first company, I just closed the doors on the law firm, blind optimism, you know, that it would work out and it’d get funding for it, but I’m of the true belief that you do need to get out of the practice of law if you’re really going to start something. I know that if you have a family and have to be able to support your family and have some revenue coming in, a firm provides you that safety net. But I don’t know how you’re learning fast enough if you’re not in it, day in and day out, every day. Like you said, it’s totally new. Is there a time when you thought, maybe this isn’t going to work?

CSK: A time. Yes, there was only one. You know, it’s funny being a startup founder, it really is some of the highest highs I’ve had in my professional life and some of the lowest lows as well. Rarely is it ever somewhere in the middle. I mean, nothing is mundane in startup life and if you do have a mundane week, you should be worried, in my opinion, at least.

KO: Yeah, I mean, so many times I’ve put my head against the wall, going, “Does it have to be this hard?” But this is going to pass, this issue right now. I’m going to get it behind me somehow, because you always do somehow.

CSK: Absolutely. I’ll give you a very timely example. I didn’t sleep last night, I literally did not, not because of stress, but because I was working to make sure that our stuff was set up for today and we can make a good resume with the people here.

KO: What do you think about this Legal Geek conference?

CSK: I think that this team does a fantastic job. I must admit that this is a historically and consistently been kind of the best gathering point for people that I respect within the legal tech community.

KO: So you have one of the startup areas out here. How many are there, do you think? There has got to be fifty, seventy-five, maybe a hundred?

CSK: Yeah. We up-sold to be on the startup lawn but yeah, there’s a lot. And you know, it sort of begs the question of what are people here to do?

KO: What are you when you do that? What are you hoping to do, in having that presence?

CSK: The reason that we’re here is to get the word out about the Agreements Network as an open ecosystem that lawyers can participate in, businesses can participate in, legal tech startups can participate in, and to really focus on that. So we’re not really here, you know, this isn’t the target market for the Monax platform, but it is very much the target market for agreements that were participants. And we really think that we have something of value that folks could be very interested in.

KO: And you’re going to reach influencers here, and they’re going to talk about you and see what you guys are about, that sort of thing. Thanks a lot Casey!

CSK: Thank you Kevin.

If you’d like to read more of Casey’s interviews, we keep a list of published Monax press in this blog(updated regularly) and there’s another interesting video interview transcribed here.

Photo by Julio Gutierrez on Unsplash

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