Speaking with James Betzold, founder of PrimaFacie, a modern immigration forms and case management tool for immigration lawyers, at Clio Cloud Conference 2018.

Kevin O’Keefe: Who am I talking with?

James Betzold: Hi, I’m a James Betzold, the founder of PrimaFacie.

Kevin O’Keefe: What does PrimaFascie do?

James Betzold: PrimaFascia is the immigration case management system. It syncs with Clio, and autofills forms that you’re going to need for immigration cases, and help overall management of the immigration aspects of the case.

Kevin O’Keefe: And how long have you been doing it?

James Betzold: We launched to the public in 2016, so a couple years.

Kevin O’Keefe: What were you doing before that?

James Betzold: I’m an immigration lawyer.

Kevin O’Keefe: So what gave you the crazy idea that hey, I can start a legal technology-based company?

James Betzold: An over abundance of confidence…

Kevin O’Keefe: Or as Jack or Rian called it, unreasonable optimism, or something like that. Irrational optimism is what they called it.

James Betzold: I mean, I can remember one of the moments where I was sitting in federal court and just waiting for the next case to be called. And I just kept thinking about how inefficient my practice was with managing the forms, and I tried all the other software that was out there at the time and it just wasn’t good. It didn’t work, it was buggy, it was slow at this, it was built on a really old technology and old platform, and I was having to do double data entry between Clio and the other system I was using. So as I was sitting there in federal court, it came to me: just build something better. It can’t be that hard.

Kevin O’Keefe: But you’re not a technologist?

James Betzold: No, no, I mean I know a little about tech stuff, but my brother, and actually my wife was the one when I told her about this crazy idea, she said, well my cousin has a boyfriend in Columbia and he knows how to make webpages, and my first thought was “this is way more than a web page,” but what the heck, we’ll meet with them and see whatever. And it turns out yeah, he knew how to make webpages… and database design, and javascript programming, and all the web technologies and Amazon host – everything that we needed to build a working model. And it took off from there.

Kevin O’Keefe: So was that done before 2016, when you started all this up?

James Betzold: Oh yeah, this was November of 2014, and we were actually able to start building.

Kevin O’Keefe: And so it took a year to get it to the point where you’re saying, “okay, we’re ready for prime time.”

James Betzold: It did, and the thing is, we were using one developer this whole time, and we had to build not only the platform but we had to build and discover the processes and the tools to unlock some of these forms, be able to format them so that they work in our system to be auto-filled in a modern, quick, and easy way. That’s scalable as well. So just building the tools is what took most of the time.

Kevin O’Keefe: And you’re just doing this as you’re still practicing law.

James Betzold: Yeah.

Kevin O’Keefe: You’re bootstrapping whatever it is, you’re not getting somebody to hand you some money and say, here, go out and try to do this, you’re doing it all yourself.

James Betzold: Yeah, it was – still is – a lot of fun.

Kevin O’Keefe: When did you realize you know that this could fly? Because when you’re obviously building it, you don’t know for certain. Was there a moment where you said this could fly?

James Betzold: So at the American Immigration Lawyers Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada – and that was June of 2016 – we were like, “hey, we got something that might work, we might as well see how it’s received here.” We just paid, you know, $5,000 for a booth and plane tickets and all this other stuff that we had, you know, essentially on credit because we don’t have any income from it. And I’m literally walking down the hallway to where our booth is, my brother and I are like, “you know what? This is going to work. Someone’s going to like it.” And sure enough, we got people who were expressing interest, and shortly after that we went to our first Clio Convention a couple months later, a few months later. And we were showing it to people there. And, I mean, it was functional, but a little buggy, some things we still needed to iron out. And even though it was a real basic tool, it could do the forms and it could autofill multiple forms with the same data, and that was enough of a selling point. We started getting people to sign up, and we had a lot of people who looked at it and were like, “Eh, call me back when it’s more developed.” And we actually met someone here today who was at the very first Clio Convention we were at. He was like, “yeah, I looked at you guys before and I wasn’t real impressed.” And we were like, “okay, please, that was a couple of years ago. We’ve done a lot. We actually validated the idea, we are going forward with it, it does work.

Kevin O’Keefe: Well once you have customers that are paying you something, then you get some real, legitimate feedback because they’re invested in your success.

James Betzold: I mean, for me, part of the frustrating part is the feedback, because they’re like, oh, well you should have it do this, and this, and this. I’m like, “yeah, I know it should do that. Do you want to give me some money?”

Kevin O’Keefe: Or it becomes, you know, this is a good core thing that’s of value to people, and they want it to do five other things. Well then you’re probably gonna have to go get your own custom web development for it. It’s going to cost you a lot of money, but this thing right now does this, based on the information we get along the way as to what we should add for features, and we’ll be able to take a look at it. How did you come up with the pricing for it?

James Betzold: Well, immigration attorneys are the most price sensitive. Price, irritated, come to find out. For me, if it works and makes my life easier, I don’t care what it costs. I’m going to do it. If it saves me that much per month, it’s worth it. But we’re dealing with an audience that, by and large – and we’ve been working to combat this – are underpaid. They undercharge, they undervalue themselves. It can be a challenge sometimes to really show them, no, look, it’s going to save you 10 hours in a week. It’s worth 10 times this. So just pay this. I mean, I basically looked in the mirror and said, well, what’s the most I would pay for it? And we tried that. And then I thought, okay, well what’s the least I would pay for it, and we went a little bit north of that, because we didn’t want to underprice ourselves either. And as we were at our very first Clio Convention, Jack visited our booth, Jack Newton, you know, the CEO, and he’s like, “how much do you charge for this?” $50, per user, per month. He goes, “hmm, that’s too low. You could easily do twice that.” We didn’t do twice that, but we did go up to $70, and we’ve sort of been there, and now we have a few different payment options to drop it if you’re an annual subscriber, but it was a lot of testing.

Kevin O’Keefe: Yeah, because even Clio, when they were sitting there in their earlier days, had competitors and all of a sudden Clio jumped its prices over the competitors, and people go, “oh my God, that’s never going to work.” And I said, “I don’t know. Clio’s going to be perceived as having value, they know what it takes to be successful. They’re going to have to have a certain amount of money in it, or they can’t continue to operate. Were there times along the way – and I’m sure there were, there always is for everybody – where you went, “wow, does it have to be this hard? Are we really going to make it?”

James Betzold: Hiring developers can be tricky, and so along the way, we needed to grow our company. We were able to bootstrap it initially, and then once we got a really good customer base, all of a sudden we realized, hey, we can self-fund this now. But hiring staff can be a challenge. I’ve seen this in my law firm and in PrimaFacie as well. If you have the right staff, and they’re motivated, and they’re talented, and they’re hungry, you’re going to be just fine because they’ll perform. And so now, we need to grow our company. In the last year or so, we’ve sort of retooled how we do some HR stuff. Like handling employees, and where we hire from, and how do we find people.

Kevin O’Keefe: It will never stop. Because people will ask me, “what can I control?” you know, and I’ll tell my COO the same thing: we can control who we hire, and so our job has to be to go out and get the best people. If they look good, but we’re not sure, that’s not going to be good enough because we’ll regret that type of thing, and it reflects on the product, it reflects on the service, it reflects on everybody’s morale. And it might work out great in something else, it just wasn’t the right fit on this operation. So the employees is huge. I mean, I’m also out effecting sales and business development just like you are. I can’t write code a day in, day out. If you were asked a question by a room full of people who were thinking about starting a company, and they’re a lawyer or maybe an accountant, or whatever, but they’re maybe not tech, what would you tell them?

James Betzold: If they’re not tech savvy, if they don’t have a background in any of the programming language technologies, find someone who is.

Kevin O’Keefe: But I mean are you still working as a lawyer? Some?

James Betzold: Some. I still have my practice to run, and about 10 percent of my time is dedicated to that.

Kevin O’Keefe: Okay, so pretty small. What do you tell people though, who are going to leave that, leave that practice? They’re wondering, “should I start a company or not?” What would you tell them?

James Betzold: Do it incrementally. I mean, if you’re comfortable with leaving your practice, or transitioning to a different way, where you’re committing less time to it and you can still serve your clients, you want to plan that out.

Kevin O’Keefe: You believe that a lawyer, if they have the idea, and can find a partner to work with or whatever, can do it incrementally so they don’t have to burn the boats behind them.

James Betzold: Yeah, you don’t want to burn your bridges. I mean, what are the statistics? Like four out of five fail in the first year or two? And then you’ve got to rebuild your practice. It can be emotionally straining.