This interview is episode 2 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies, an interview series with entrepreneurs and experts.
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Here's the transcript:
Josh: Yes, I’m here with Ben Alden. Ben does BD and Legal at Betterment. Ben, thanks for joining me. How are you?
Ben Alden: Great, great, thanks for having me. Looking forward to this.
Josh: Awesome. So for people who don’t know, do you want to give me a minute on what Betterment is, and just a little bit of background there?
Ben: Sure. Betterment is a start-up that wants to give the answer to the question, what should you do to manage your money? Today, you come to us, we ask you questions about your financial goals, and then we automatically build, customize and manage investment portfolios for you. We provide investment advice around retirement too, so you can come and get all those tricky questions that no one will answer for you answered automatically and for a low cost.
Josh: And so you do both business development and legal there. What for you and for you at Betterment, what does BD mean? What does that mean for you?
Ben: That’s a good question. So right now, really, a lot of business development for us is discovering whether or not we should be doing greater development or other sales efforts in certain particular and targeted areas. You can imagine that… not always clear what BD means. I think BD means something different in every single start-up and we kind of started with that in mind. Okay, so what is this? An answer is, let’s explore inbound and outbound opportunities to see if there is anything that makes sense in terms of partnerships, new lines of business, moving international, etc. Where should we spend our time? And then once we do that we act accordingly.
Josh: Okay, okay. So you’re in basically the scouting area to try to figure out if something makes sense, and then if something does make sense then you hand it over to another team that is going to work to implement there?
Ben: Absolutely, or build the team as it might be if it’s brand new. But obviously very sensitive about, making sure that we aren’t aimlessly thrashing. The best thing to do in our view is to have clear focused targets and to go after them. So right now until you have those targets you’re exploring.
Josh: That makes sense. And so I want to get into how you get to do BD as a lawyer because I think for a lot of lawyers that is kind of a dream job or a dream part of a job. But maybe let’s back up a little bit. Talk me through the story of how you ended up at Betterment to start with.
Ben: It’s… the way I think it happens with a lot of start-ups for lawyers, and that’s, I knew someone. So I was a consultant before I went to law school. And our CEO and Chief Product Officer both worked at the same firm at the same time. And I didn’t know John as well. But Anthony, Chief Product Officer, basically trained me. He took me as a wet behind the ears consultant and he taught me all that he knew. I loved working with him. I thought he was absolutely wonderful. Always stayed in touch with him because of it. And years later, maybe around 7, 8 years down the road, I came to him during one of our normal lunches and said, Anthony, I’m thinking about a start-up thing. You’ve been in Betterment three years now, what’s the story? And he said, I think I have a job for you. So I got a little bit lucky there.
Josh: Wow. So you were like one for one there.
Ben: Yah, I was very lucky there although I’m hopeful that really working for Anthony as a consultant was the longest job interview I’ve personally had.
Josh: Makes sense. So in some ways it sounds like that story is… you could say as a cynic that that’s impossible to replicate, right? Like, oh he knew someone. But it sounds to me like that’s something that anyone who wants to do this could replicate. They might not do it at Betterment, but the idea… meaning in working with someone for a long period of time, building that relationship and then it ultimately turning into something that’s a job, whether it’s with that person’s company or someone that they introduced them to. That feels like great advice, and something that people could try to do long term.
Ben: Absolutely. And that’s really my advice when people ask me, how do I get into start-ups? You can get these great start-up legal jobs and they tend to be a lot fun, I personally think, by applying. But then once a great company like Canary or Betterment opens up a job for a lawyer, they’ll get 300-400 applications, so it’s not that you can’t get a job that way, it’s just not the easiest. And because culture’s so important at start-ups, knowing people at these places matters a great deal.
Josh: Are there any steps you would take or you would advice someone else to take if they are like sitting in a law firm right now or even in an in-house job in a big company, or even a non-lawyer in a similar situation who’s in big consulting firm or a big company and thinking, hey I want to do something in start-ups. Where would you tell them to start?
Ben: Start with your network, I think. A lot of what I was trying to do at first I got very lucky with Betterment and knowing Anthony. But when I first started kind of trying to figure out what to do, the best advice I got is, always be having coffee. Meet people, try and learn about what they do. A meeting is not like a coffee, as in a promise of anything. But the more you get to know people the more you understand what you like and what you want, and then the more targeted your search can become. I would also encourage lawyers to the extent you are interested to work in a start-up or company to learn a lot about it before talking with people. I think that is good advice for most interviews but people with start-ups, at least in my experience, love when you know about what they do and you have a real passion for the business, because that’s what will keep you here late at night when you are not getting paid like you are as a lawyer. And when no one is telling you to stay there.
Josh: When you say that, to learn as much as you can, you give people a couple of places you would look, I mean, you know, AngelList or where else would you focus your attention?
Ben: Sure. Great question. One of the best pieces of advice I got was obviously beyond your network and anyone you know is to look at really great venture capitalists in your region, or who invest in your region. Like New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, wherever. And then look at their portfolio companies. It’s a great way to learn a little bit about what’s out there, what are people hearing and seeing, what investments companies are getting and in what areas, whether that’s in tech or certain consumer type of stuff. You can get a sense of it by looking at these pages. And oftentimes some of the sites even will have open positions posted for all their portfolio companies.
Josh: That’s actually really good advice and here in New York we’re lucky to have a lot of very active funds and that portfolio information is very accessible. And you can start to see, I think if you spend a little bit of time getting into Crunchbase, you can see where the overlaps are, who’s investing together and seeing patterns in those sorts of things if it’s something you really want to dive into also. You mention this idea of always having coffee. I’m not sure if you know this but one of the things that I spent a lot of time on in the last few years is both writing about and helping people who are unfamiliar with start-up culture understand what that means and why it can be beneficial to you even if you’re a lawyer in a big law firm. And that really started for me and describing it to friends who are in big firms and wanting to stay there, hoping that they might understand this idea that it’s a very easy and low friction thing you can do to ask somebody to go spend 20 or 30 minutes together, and frankly look for ways you can help them and learn from them in the process. That’s something that I’m super familiar with and frankly had a lot to do with my ending up at Canary five or six years after I started thinking about really getting into start-ups. For you, you talked about your relationship with Betterment, but can you talk about any other ways that you used or you’ve seen other people use coffee meetings as a great way to learn?
Ben: Sure, sure. One of the best things to do is kind of over the course of the coffee if you really click with someone, try and build that relationship. I’ve really learned an unbelievable amount from people who I consider mentors, maybe the first time you have a coffee and you have five coffees, you really click with someone, two, one, two, three, four, whatever it is, percent of the time or number of times. But then following up and trying to be helpful to the person but also building that relationship because it’s maybe not the first coffee, it’s the second or the third where you start to learn a lot more. I think both about what it’s like to work at a start-up, but then also, get closer to getting more help and advice. It’s not always possible tol do that, but it’s… oftentimes people have me out for coffee and they’ll say, great, Ben, tell me about Betterment. And my first instinct is, it would have been great if you told me you really liked Betterment. You don’t have to do that but that’s okay. If you’re looking for a job here, the first answer is I hope you care. But if you’re not looking at Betterment that’s also totally fine. And having me tell you about start-ups is great, and the way most of these calls end is, great, thanks Ben, great coffee, really enjoyed meeting you. Let me know if someone’s looking for a job. Thanks, bye. And that could be the last time you hear from that person ever.
Josh: How does that make you feel when that happens?
Ben: At some point you get used to it. It’s not like a bad emotional feeling. It’s just, well, how am I expected to kind of keep you in mind if I… I do keep people in mind who I know and who I kind of have relationships with and who I think would be great because there’s nothing better than placing someone in a company and having everyone really succeed. The company, the person, I like making those connections but it’s hard to do that if I’ve had coffee with you once a year and a half ago. I can barely keep what I had for breakfast in mind some days, hard enough keeping someone you haven’t really kept in touch with.
Josh: I struggle with the same thing. And one of the things people ask me, well, what can I do? What can I even… I don’t have anything to give. I don’t know what to tell him. And one piece of advice that I try to give people is like if you have nothing else to say, I might spend half an hour or an hour with you at a point one month ago, just send me a quick note to say, hey, I really appreciate you spending the time with me, I appreciate your advice on this or your recommendation for this. One thing we talk about and show that you did something about it. Or that you internalized it and something happened. That for me is an indication that you’re trying and you’re interested and that there is some value in the discussion that we had. And for me it’s actually like, it kind of depends on the level people are in their career, but for somebody who’s just out of school, somebody keeping me posted on what they’re doing actually really… I feel like there’s value in that for me and I’m glad that they do it.
Ben: I think that’s awesome. I agree and it’s great and I wish more would. I actually sometimes would explicitly tell lawyers, I really do like… I’m telling you to contact me, stay in touch. You probably won’t because that’s not lawyers think much about. We went to school and schools are like great, you’ll succeed by getting good grades. Okay, so you kind of put your head down and you work and then you settle off and you’ll succeed by XYZ and you kind of do that for a few years and you get to some point in your career where you realize it’s actually relationships you build, the people you know. It’s the people you pick up the phone and call and say, I have a legal question, do you know anything about this? Or especially for career stuff and that doesn’t really come through in our legal training or cultural super much until people get a little bit more senior. But I do try and encourage people, and I do chat with them younger to remember like this is a relationship, it’s a real living, breathing thing. You can’t say we have a relationship or I met this guy once for coffee, he’s taking care of me from now on.
Josh: Right, right.
Ben: It’s like business school a little bit.
Josh: Yah, right? Because it’s kind of a natural thing in business school. It’s part of the core skill set that you learn is that you need to build relationships with people and ideas. I don’t even really like to think about networking. It’s just essentially, you need to know people who are doing things in your industry and the industry you want to work in. You need to know as much as you can. This is a method of information gathering and building relationships and trying to be helpful. And like, you’re right. Not only is it not part of our core curriculum, but if you end up going out of law school into big law, then to the extent that you’re ever really thinking about that sort of thing, you’re thinking about it from a client development perspective. And then you can end up in this really toxic, like, everybody I talk to I have to pitch, mentality. And that’s, I’m sure, I feel as an in-house lawyer, I’m sure you do too, that’s the last thing you want to be doing. Because you think you’re trying to have a conversation with somebody, and then you end up with a sales pitch.
Ben: It’s the worst. I had someone once who’s on like a sales or some lawyer was trying to sell some business, and he’s like, you know, pretend I’m your uncle, I’m going to give you some really good advice, right here. And my first thought was, oh god, that’s not really what I want to hear. That’s like the last thing I want to hear. But, yah…
Josh: Yah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. So, you’ve been at Betterment for almost two years, is that right?
Ben: That’s right.
Josh: So you guys have grown a lot. I told you when we met, I’m a client and I know that you have rolled out a lot of new products and new initiatives. The company’s growing pretty quickly. I guess I have really two questions around growth. One is, how do you keep your head on straight and keep your priorities and the work that you do in the right order or in the right at least levels of things that you should be spending your time on. And the second piece of that is whether you have anything that you have done that you could give as advice to other people who are in companies that are growing like yours or mine to help them through with the same type of challenge.
Ben: Sure. So how do I keep my head on straight is a very good question. I think most days I do. Some days you don’t because you’re just so busy. But always staying as organized as possible and trying to build out systems and processes for handling standard and repeatable legal tasks would be the first place I would start. Again, it’s in-house, you see it very quickly and at a law firm you don’t. And that’s just building efficiencies. I was a litigator by trade and every time you got a brief, you basically write everything from scratch. You wouldn’t… there is always a brief bank somewhere where you might be able to find like similar types of briefs, but people typically didn’t use it. And as a result, you end up doing lots of work over again. At a law firm, if you have to negotiate commercial contracts a lot, you don’t want to have to rethink each one from scratch, so how do you create a process both for in-taking those contracts but then also how do you come up with a process for reviewing them and in a systematic, repeatable and transparent way. That can be a checklist, that can be best practices, it can be a spreadsheet. But these are the types of things that are important to think about, otherwise you’ll find yourself underwater quickly and not being a great business partner to the rest of the organization. That’s one example. And I think the other is making sure you scale appropriately. I do happen to b elieve that your legal department can be truly value add, especially in a fast growing company, where if you’re not careful, things will break. We happen to be in a highly regulated industry, so the lawyers are a bit more involved in both the regulatory issues but also with the product. We want to build in a systemic, smart way, so how do we as lawyers have a good product sense while helping to achieve our business goals. So all these things are kind of organization but then also remembering that you can find the ways to add value, I think are pretty important. And I confess I sort of forgot the second question.
Josh: Oh and then to what extent are the things that you’re doing and that you’ve done, is there advice that you would take out of that, you would give to other people, to somebody who’s just starting at a company that looks like yours, maybe whether or not heavily regulated. But in a fast growing start-up, in a role that they’re going to have to take on a lot quickly, and things are moving around a lot, what would you tell them?
Ben: The single most important thing for anyone at a company that’s smaller and growing, hopefully growing fast, is to have a sense of ownership over your work and your problems. And for lawyers on some level hopefully do you really get good training, especially at a law firm for this, and after that sense of something doesn’t feel right here, what’s the issue? But then following that up, tracking it down, not letting it go until it sits. That sense of ownership I think allows you to really move into a lot of different areas and really prove your value at a company and allows you to do non-legal things too. One of the reasons, I think you asked this in the beginning. I think I got into moving into business development and operations too is because I was helping someone with something very early on and at the end of the call, I memorialized it, created a follow-up plan, and basically said, I think this is what we should do for the next two, three steps with this type of relationship. And I think the person is my boss at the time, like, oh, wow, okay. That’s really helpful, thank you. And so I just started doing it, I started doing the job. And the more I did, the more responsibility I would take on over there too. There’s all sorts of opportunities and now I’m off the original point, but really what I’m saying, you exercise ownership and you show yourself willingness to do work and to do it well. At a start-up you’ll have all the opportunity in the world to grow.
Josh: I think that’s really interesting. It’s something that I’ve seen and I came from about a 10,000 person company before I joined Canary and it’s a huge difference in environment. But one of the things that I’ve seen here is that the company has grown so quickly that there are not yet people who own not just like particular tasks, but groups of tasks, like groups of responsibilities that you would see in a larger company that like if somebody’s been doing that job for however many years, we just haven’t really needed it yet. Or when we’ve needed it it’s kind of been addressed in an ad hoc way just to kind of get it done. And there are a bunch of places, mostly in the operations area here where I just kind of grabbed a whole bunch of these things and then you just start doing it and then hey guess what, now the CEO says, oh, well now you own this. So okay. Fine. That’s fine. But you’re right. You start really getting into non-legal stuff really quickly and I don’t know, for me that’s exciting too. Not because I don’t want to b e a lawyer but because it’s great to understand all of the things that are going on inside of the company. It helps you not just be a better lawyer but it helps you to be a better business person too. I’ve seen that.
Ben: And I always find one of the things that’s really fun about being a lawyer at a small fast growing company is that if you get work and people like you and trust you, you’ll eventually know more about the business than almost anyone, because you sit across and interact with almost the entire organization. I gave a presentation to the company once just about legal department stuff and I put up a chart of all the faces of the people in the company with a little start next to people me and my team had spoken with in the last week or worked with, and almost everyone was on there in some form or some way. Not everything is a big meaty legal issue, sometimes it’s just a simple thing like a touch base or someone had a question about something. And so you get a good sense of what’s happening, when it’s happening and how it’s happening. And that’s really cool. I really like that part that if you’re just a senior marketing director at the company, you might not have as much of a sense across all pieces.
Josh: Yah it’s definitely evident here too, where you realize you do touch every part of the company. Every decision that’s being made, you can have some influence, but you at least have some visibility into it, and that’s really cool. Okay, so to take just another couple of minutes if you don’t mind, I just wanted to know if there’s anything you’re either reading or listening to which you’re really into right now. I like to ask that. Reading, whether it’s business related or not. Listening to podcast or music or anything that someone could hear and say, wow, I want to check that out.
Ben: If that’s the case then I’d definitely say the River by Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has just put out a box set and I’ve been listening to that album non-stop. Not strictly legal but a great moment in Americana for everyone out there. One thing I love doing is trying to consume as much stuff as possible. It’s unbelievable what’s free and on the Internet about all of our businesses and just even being an in-house lawyer and how to grow and run things. So I actually spend a large amount of time fracking through those types of documents. Someone will sent me a treatise on something, some counsel will say, hey, look, this is how a transaction works or read some new IP development. I really enjoy all those areas of kind of following up on that stuff. It’s… I don’t know if you remember studying for your bar or not, the world’s most fun thing on earth. But there was a moment at least for me and I think for some other people too where right before you take the exam, the hard work is behind you, when you say, wow. I know a lot about a lot of random legal stuff. And that moment, you’re like, I could probably be a useful lawyer to someone. If my mom has a question, I might be able to answer it.
Josh: Right, and it’s the last time in your life you’re going to know the answers to a lot different questions.
Ben: Yah, without a doubt. And I kind of like that feeling in-house. It’s… Look, having a sense of what you don’t know is as much if not more important about what you do know. But I do like that broad sense of all these different areas. So I do a lot of random reading from that perspective. PLC puts out good stuff. Some of the start-up lawyers put out some interesting stuff. And yah…
Josh: Awesome. That’s good stuff. Right on. Okay, well thanks for joining me. Anything else you want to add? Can people find you on the Internet? Are you on Twitter or anything?
Ben: I wish I was on Twitter. It’s probably better that I’m not. You can find me at email@example.com, or on LinkedIn. And I’m always happy to chat with people. I think when I went through the process, Anthony made it easy but I talk to a lot of lawyers who are unbelievably helpful and always happy to pay that forward a little bit.
Josh: Cool. Alright, Ben. Thanks for joining me.
Josh: Right, bye bye.