Talking with Alma Asay, the founder of Allegory Law and the CIO of Integreon, at the 2018 Legal Geek Conference.

Kevin O’Keefe: I’m at the Legal Geeks conference. Who am I talking with?

Alma Asay: Alma Asay.

Kevin O’Keefe: And what do you do?

Alma Asay: I was the founder of Allegory, a litigation management platform, after many years of practicing law. I’m now the Chief Innovation Officer at Integreon after they acquired my business.

Kevin O’Keefe: What made you be crazy enough to say, “Okay, I’m practicing law, and I’m going to go out and start a company?”

Alma Asay: I was very naive. I thought I was just leaving to develop a software– work with some engineers, build out a software that didn’t exist and everyone needed, and obviously once it was built, everyone would use it, right? I had no idea I was an entrepreneur. I had no idea I was building a startup. I just kind of dove in headfirst.

Kevin O’Keefe: And where were you living then?

Alma Asay: Back then I was living in New York. There’s a straight answer for that one.

Kevin O’Keefe: So, when you decided to do this, what was the reason– I mean, there’s lawyers that stay inside of firms and there’s lawyers that say, “Okay, I’ve got this idea and I’d like to pursue it, maybe even leave the practice of law.” Why do you think you decided to leave the practice and follow this thing that you were thinking about and seeing where it would go?

Alma Asay: I had skipped a grade of high school and a year of college and kind of raced straight through, and I never knew if I wanted to be at a law firm long-term. It surprised me when I realized how much I love practicing law at Gibson, and so one day I was walking down the hall, realizing that I am now on partnership track where I never thought I would be, I’m not even 30 years old, and it suddenly dawned on me that I could always come back and do those last two years to partnership. But if I stayed doing what I was doing, I’d be happy, but I also kind of knew what I’d be doing every day for the rest of my life, and I thought if I’m ever going to try something else, now’s the time. So I did.

Kevin O’Keefe: Interesting. So when you went out and you had to get these developers to do the software and whatnot, how’d you fund that, or get developers to do this work?

Alma Asay: Initially, a friend introduced me to some friends of hers that were engineers. I met with them in August of 2011. I remember sitting with them in Brooklyn and I was sharing these ideas, and they’re like, “Yeah, we can totally build that” and kind of got all excited, and so initially I was working with them. That turned out to be a terrible experience. I learned a lot the hard way, though, so that’s good.

Kevin O’Keefe: On how to find developers?

Alma Asay: Or, how to work with developers, what to look for when you’re looking for developers, what to require of them. They were kind of cowboy developers. They weren’t so concerned with security or stability or communication. So my second development team, also found them through a friend, but they were incredible. I mean, they were everything you could hope to have in an engineering team and they’re really the ones who got us off the ground.

Kevin O’Keefe: How did you compensate them for the work that they were doing?

Alma Asay: Cash. The first team, we originally were going to do equity, and initially that seems like a great idea, but what happens is they delivered a product and they said “We’re done, we’ve earned our equity.” And I was like, “It’s not secure, it’s not stable, it doesn’t…I can’t sell this,” and they’re like, “No, we’re done,” and we didn’t really have enough definition around what the equity meant and all of that, so after a year, a year after we started, we raised our first round and we used that to buy out the original development team and pay the new team because at that point I was all for just, I will just pay my engineering team and that way if I say it’s not done yet, I’m paying you so you can keep working on it and we’re not going to have that fight. Now later they became investors in the company after we worked together, but that was a much better way to go.

Kevin O’Keefe: You know, it really is. The previous company that I founded, it had venture capital, so I was able to pay people with the tranches of money that came in. This company, it was credit cards, so every time I had an employee, I would use credit cards to pay expenses for x period of time. Then the revenue would catch up, and the credit card would be paid down. I always believed that you couldn’t expect people to come and work on your dream for free or some low wage.

Alma Asay: That’s absolutely right.

Kevin O’Keefe: They may chase something unique and this opportunity to work in a startup that would be better than working in a large company, but they still need a wage to support themselves, their family and everything like that. So you talked today about mistakes that you made along the way. How do you as a founder, and you’re doing it, how do you cope with that feeling like, “Oh my God, did this, should have done it this way.” Because in a law firm, it doesn’t run that way. You don’t make mistakes.

Alma Asay: Well, there are also right answers. And mistakes are made in a law firm, we’re just taught that we can’t have made a mistake. So learning to accept that mistakes are a good thing and an opportunity to learn, that was a very hard lesson for me at first, because it’s not something that we’re taught in the law firm environment. Never taught that it’s okay to fail, okay to make mistakes. So once I learned that, it was very freeing and I made some enormous mistakes up front, so I got a crash course in that, which really helped because later on, nothing that was going badly really rose to the level of where it had been at the outset. So I just, I don’t know, I just let it roll off me and kind of looked at it critically and thought, well, how can I do this better? One particular instance, I remember I was trying to raise money and all these investors were telling me what was wrong and where I was going wrong, but no one would tell me what was right. So I knew all the mistakes I was making, but I didn’t know how to fix them. And I reached out to a partner at the law firm I had been at who I knew had experience in the venture world and who’d worked with Mark Cuban and I said, “Will you please meet with me? Because everybody’s telling me what I’m doing wrong and I need advice on how to do it right.” Learning to ask people for help was the, the biggest advancement for me because then I could own up to the mistakes, but you know, solve them.

Kevin O’Keefe: You got to be vulnerable, because we’re not going around the law firms saying, “I don’t understand this. Can you help me? I just need to lean on your shoulder.” Just doesn’t happen at all. This experience that you’ve gone through, when did you realize, okay, this is me. I’m glad I did this. I’m sensing that from you, talking to you now and watching you on the stage earlier.

Alma Asay: Well, the “this is me” part, I think it took kind of things settling out at the beginning. I originally had a co-founder and that turned into a disaster. The original development team was a disaster. So it took getting to a point where, okay, now I’ve got this startup and it’s me and I’ve got to just own this, and I moved to Silicon Valley. So that was kind of the moment in late 2013 where I was like, “This is who I am.” In terms of being glad I did it, I mean I was glad all along because to me, even if I lost everything, it was more experience and more education than I ever could have bought for the same amount of money going to grad school or anything like that. So I was grateful for the experience all along, but I won’t lie– the moment where it really all crystallized was the day after the acquisition, and that weight was just lifted off. It was like, alright, I got to the finish line.

Kevin O’Keefe: With the people here today that are sitting in the room and they’re thinking, I got to hear these people that started companies and they don’t look any different than me. What would you tell them if you were having a drink with them or coffee with them and they came up to you and said, “I have this idea.” I mean, there is no way we can understand everybody else’s ideas, but if they have some conviction about it, what would you be telling them?

Alma Asay: First of all, I’d tell them all the reasons not to do it, all the things that they’re not thinking about that are going to make it really difficult, all the things that they’re not thinking about that are going to cause them a lot of stress down the line and ask them what their pain tolerance is like. But then, if at the end of all that– well, because I didn’t have that, and it’s my fault, but I wish I had had a better idea of what I was getting into– and so if after all that they’re like, “Okay, I get that, I want to do it,” then I would give them all the advice I can, tell them all the mistakes I made, so hopefully they can go make their own.

Kevin O’Keefe: Would you tell them to do it?

Alma Asay: I wouldn’t, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone to do it. I’ve given them reasons not to, and I’ve told them I fully support them and they have an open line to me if I can ever be helpful in any way, and I will cheer them on. But I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone to do it.

Kevin O’Keefe: Right. Well, thank you very much! This was great, Alma.

Thank you.