Talking with Chang Zi Qian, CEO of INTELLLEX, a Singapore based company doing automated document organization, at ILTACON 2018.
Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I talking with?
Chang Zi Qian: Chang.
Kevin O’Keefe: Chang. And what do you do?
Chang Zi Qian: I build knowledge platforms for lawyers to do legal research and knowledge management.
Kevin O’Keefe: And what does that mean?
Chang Zi Qian: So when lawyers want to do research they search beyond. So they search for external documents and more importantly they also want to search for internal documents.
Kevin O’Keefe: So how long have you been doing it?
Chang Zi Qian: For about two and a half years.
Kevin O’Keefe: Okay. How did you get started with that idea?
Chang Zi Qian: I used to practice law in Singapore. I did litigation and arbitration and worked for one of those big four firms and I thought when I joined a big firm I’d be supported by lots of materials, but I realized that information infrastructure doesn’t really support that. Yeah. So once a piece of work is done, it’s forgotten. It’s difficult to retrieve, and junior lawyers like myself would start all over again and I wanted to change that.
Kevin O’Keefe: So you quit the firm and started this? What did you do?
Chang Zi Qian: I joined the government so I was in the Singapore prime minister’s office doing venture capital investments and start up-related policy. Yeah. So I just wanted to learn more about the startup ecosystem. That was during the time where at night and during the weekend I would try to put something together with my cofounder, and say, “let’s try and tackle this law problem.” It was a bit painful, but about two and a half years ago, we came up full time with a group of people, engineers, data scientists, and lawyers.
Kevin O’Keefe: How did you get the capital to start it? To hire those people?
Chang Zi Qian: It’s all from our savings.
Kevin O’Keefe: Is it? That’s cool.
Chang Zi Qian: Yeah. So bootstrap, bootstrap, everything.
Kevin O’Keefe: Are you still bootstrapped? Now you obviously have revenue, but have you taken on an investor, or have you done it all yourself?
Chang Zi Qian: So we took on a little investment money. One small round, about two years ago.
Kevin O’Keefe: Okay. And how does it work? I’m just curious. You don’t have to do and all the details, as to whether that round will allow you to get to where you want to go. Or do you think you’ll have to keep raising more money?
Chang Zi Qian: We’re in the process of raising our next round, so this will be our second round, so we’re quite prudent with the way we raise money. Yeah, we just want to be capital efficient.
Kevin O’Keefe: When you had this idea was it clear to you that this would work? Where you’d have to get out there and start developing. Some entrepreneurs will just be so clear – “This has got to be done, this could be improved, things could be better, I know I can be successful at this”. How clear was that to you?
Chang Zi Qian: It’s not that clear to be honest. I was just trying to solve a problem that I faced personally and I would just extrapolate that idea. I thought I was the only person to face this problem and I was asking around, and people do face this problem and I thought that couldn’t be the case. The way we practice law, the way we search for information or the way we approach textbooks is still very classical. Nothing has changed for the past 100 years. I felt that that couldn’t be the case, but is my solution really the clear cut one to be the solution? I’m not so sure. And we are still figuring out as we go along as, as a team.
Kevin O’Keefe: Are you a technologist by background at all?
Chang Zi Qian: I’m not a coder.
Kevin O’Keefe: People always ask me that. They’ll say, “Oh, wait a second. How did you start this thing when you’re not a coder?” How do you do that? What do you do?
Chang Zi Qian: My co-founder, she was. She understands the technology and she’s our main product manager. She reads code and that’s why we assembled a team of developers, to build this together. And interestingly, our engineers actually did get their master’s degrees in NLP in the legal field. So we are talking to engineers who have come into contact with legal tech and legal documents. We’re kind of lucky that way.
Kevin O’Keefe: How’d you build a name for the company? How’d you get out and get people to know about it, talk about it? Have a chance that you could sell them a solution, the product, how did you do that?
Chang Zi Qian: So in the early days it was really by word of mouth. In Singapore we approached our free risk firms that we work for. And I’m trying to get more people – of course the law schools and, the major institutions in what we call the legal fraternity. So if you check out our name, INTELLLEX, it has three l’s that actually stand for the common law: the law schools, the law firms and the law courts. And that’s basically how we started trying to market our product.
Kevin O’Keefe: And now we’re in Washington DC and you’re at the International Legal Technology Association conference. Are you taking your product outside Singapore to use it? Where are you taking it to?
Chang Zi Qian: Our algorithm is based on really the English common law philosophy of aggregation and association. So we deal with content from Hong Kong, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. So we don’t do much for US law.
Kevin O’Keefe: Huge markets in and of themselves. Aggregately, those are larger than the United States.
Chang Zi Qian: Well it’s about the same. Yeah. So this is selfish time as company, in the US, because you guys have a more mature market and that’s what we’re here to learn and to check out. Check out the ecosystem here.
Kevin O’Keefe: Was there a time when you thought maybe this isn’t going to work and I might be going back to law practice?
Chang Zi Qian: Well, along the way there’s some doubts, you know, when law firms come to us and said, “No, no, no.” They’d say we looked interesting – and we really hear the word interesting a lot – and that’s really saying to me, “Oh, we would never use you.” It can be discouraging sometimes sometimes, but you know, this is our conviction. That’s why we’re entrepreneurs. We think the way forward with the technology is to, you know, to assist and enhance the way laws are in practice as opposed to replacing lawyers.
Kevin O’Keefe: And that word conviction is so brilliant. It’s that belief that this has got to work. We have a better way forward. We can use this innovation and technology. Was there a time when you realized this was going to work and maybe you’re always still pushing the rock up the hill, but was there a time when you said “this is going to work?” A time when you realized “this is beginning to resonate with the firms, we’re beginning to sell.” Was there a moment?
Chang Zi Qian: Oh yes, definitely. In fact, listen, 2018. This year, of course, our technology has improved significantly, so there are a few number of breakthroughs. For example, we allow users to search by issues into the internal documents. That feature actually got the attention of many of the big firms in Singapore and we stepped up to promote it in London and the London folks responded very positively as well. So initially people will always think, “Oh, you guys are just a search engine, are you guys in e-discovery?” People couldn’t really wrap their heads around the idea of knowledge management, but the concept of doing knowledge management where knowledge is one of the assets of the law firm is beginning to take shape. Law firms are thinking, “okay, how do I protect my own IP? How do I generate more revenue from my IP?” And therefore, management of knowledge becomes one of their priorities.
Kevin O’Keefe: Now in the law, traditionally there have been these huge companies, Wolter’s Kluwer, Thomson Reuters, etc. I can’t imagine that 20 years ago we had this many relatively small legal technology companies that have the eye of law firms, law shops, corporations. How do you see, what do you see smaller companies like yours playing important roles for major law firms around the world?
Chang Zi Qian: Those big companies you mentioned are actually mostly content-based companies, so small companies like us, we actually focused on one specific use case or a pin point and developed technology that tries to solve that problem. So I guess as the ecosystem of small companies that US tackle the problem from different points of view on one angle into soft debt problem, in our case, really knowledge management, internal search, a specific problem. Small companies like us try to tackle the problem from different points of view, but from one angle, and try to solve that problem. In our case, knowledge management and internal search.
Kevin O’Keefe: What would you tell somebody that is in a law firm today, or has been noodling around are in law school and is thinking about going and starting a legal technology company? What would your advice be for them if you decided to look back?
Chang Zi Qian: Don’t look back! If you started, then don’t look back.
Kevin O’Keefe: When I started my first company I let my law licenses go, because I didn’t want to have the chance to go back left when I started my first night I met my law license is gone because I didn’t want to have the chance to go back. Because at that point I thought that if I had the chance to look back, I’d start to look back. That’s great advice. It’s great. It’s great chatting with you. So if people want to find out more about the company, they’ll just go to INTELLLEX, read about it, and look at the background. And the sweet spot is for the countries – Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK, and New Zealand – who can use it. Very good. Thank you very much.