The recognition, as the African proverb says, that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. The right team is always better than the perfect individual.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonja Ebron.
Sonja Ebron, a PhD electrical engineer and entrepreneur, is the co-founder of Courtroom5. Courtroom5 is a digital- and artificial intelligence-based platform that, for a small monthly fee, gives its members access to an entire litigator’s toolset, animated video courses, workshops, legal forms and documents, and community forums. Through artificial intelligence capabilities, Courtroom5 is able to stay up-to-date on a case from start to finish, providing specific and timely information and aid each step of the way.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I got sued. I’m a PhD electrical engineer with a background in utilities and machine learning. I’ve generally always had a comfortable income, but somehow found myself in court, unable to afford a lawyer, and representing myself. I figured out how to do it and wanted to share my learnings with others.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I realized that there were a lot of people in court trying to express legal positions, and I couldn’t help them because I didn’t have a law license. I decided to find a way to help people help themselves because you shouldn’t need a PhD to get a fair hearing in court.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My wife Debra is Courtroom5’s co-founder. She’d had very similar experiences to mine. She’s a PhD librarian and information scientist who had also represented herself because she wasn’t able to hire an attorney when she needed to go to court. We decided to form a business to help people do easily what we had learned to do the hard way.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The product we have developed at Courtroom5 is unique. There are several legal kits for small claims, traffic tickets, and other simple cases. But there’s only one do-it-yourself solution for complex cases like debt collection, foreclosure, bankruptcy, malpractice, wrongful termination, and other claims. Lots of legal filings must be made to get to a decision that’s based on the facts of your case rather than on some procedural violation. We’ve created something unique that works. More than 70% of those who reach an outcome using Courtroom5 either win or settle their cases.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Litigation is never easy. People in court without a lawyer, particularly when their opponent has a lawyer, feel overwhelmed and abused by the courts. We’ve had people thank us for helping them retain custody of their children, or keep them in their homes during foreclosure, or gain access to an inheritance. We’re very happy to be able to serve in this way.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first is curiosity. I believe there is an explanation for every phenomenon. When I observe something that doesn’t seem to have an explanation, I go looking for one. If no one else has explained it, I’m even more curious to find a solution.
The second is tenacity. I don’t quit simply because things are hard. In fact, it’s often a delightful challenge for me when things are difficult.
Third is patience. I don’t always expect immediate quick answers or solutions. I understand the world just doesn’t work that way. While I work and try to find solutions, I also understand that solutions have their own timeline.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I try to avoid regrets. I try to take responsibility for all the choices that I’ve made, whether they turned out the way I expected or not. So I wouldn’t say I have ever done something I’ve regretted. There are times I wish I had thought a little further, or been more cautious in my thinking, but the attitude I take is there were reasons for every experience.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We decided early on that we could most easily acquire customers by sending them a postcard in the mail. These were people experiencing home foreclosure, and we thought we could show them how to stay in their homes or drive a better settlement of their cases. So we bought some very expensive data on foreclosure addresses and designed a postcard to send them. We spent the very last of our marketing budget because we were certain that the people receiving our postcard would buy our product. We printed and mailed 5,000 of them, projecting at least 100 customers within the first few days. We got one customer who lasted only a month. It turned out the product was so bad that he wasn’t even able to log in. He canceled the subscription almost immediately. That was just a dismal failure.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
One of my favorite quotes is from Yoda, in the Star Wars series. He said “Do or do not. There is no try.” When you set your mind to get something done, you get it done. It’s been helpful to remind myself of that each day.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I’ve learned not to read too much into press reports about you or the company, whether it’s good or bad. There is what happened. There is how it’s reported. And then there is what you learned from it. Only that last one is important.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
As co-founder of a venture-backed startup who absolutely loves and appreciates our investors, my advice is to bootstrap if you have that option. I think any investor worth the name would agree that an entrepreneur should seek external capital only when they are unable to build the business through bootstrapping. Bootstrap until you can’t. Your investors will expect you to have done that.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- A belief that there’s no such thing as an intractable problem. Every problem has a solution.
- A curiosity to explore solutions to problems that interest you.
- Foresight and vision, the ability to see what the world looks like when your solution exists.
- Drive and energy to go create the solution you’ve envisioned, to make it a reality.
- The recognition, as the African proverb says, that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. The right team is always better than the perfect individual.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake is to build products that people don’t want. It’s the failure to understand the market, to make sure you’re building something that truly solves a person’s problem. It’s easy to build product. It’s difficult to build business.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Write this on a poster and tape it to the wall in your bedroom so it’s the first thing you see when you wake: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” That will remind you to create good habits in everything you do, to avoid shortcuts and technical debt. Get your exercise, eat healthy, treat your employees and vendors as though they’re going to serve your company forever.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m doing precisely this at Courtroom5.com.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to meet Serena Williams and ask her how it feels to be the unexpected but unrivaled best at your chosen profession for such a long time.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!