From the dawn of modern business practice, lawyers, accountants and marketers faced the dilemma of how to get clients. In the beginning, those professionals often worked under traditional corporate structures with large overheads, and relied on people in need of their services to find them in the phonebook and walk through their office doors. As surprising as it may be, this model actually worked and it worked well. That’s because they were often one of if not the only option in town. Such is simply no longer the case. As the total wealth of the country grew and people fell back into business degrees out of convenience, these firms (law, accounting, marketing) grew in number and size. This competition led to a need to secure new clients, and there was a convenient new source.
The Rise of College Entrepreneurs
While the concept of college students starting companies is nothing new – Britton Hadden and Henry Luce founded “Time Magazine” in 1923 – the modern version is a different, more pervasive breed. With role models like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, the glamorous ideation of starting a world-changing company and dropping out of school came forth. This coincidentally gave rise to “wantrepreneurs,” who figured they could do the same, without any realistic plan to get there. But for all of the loud “wantrepreneurs,” there are dozens more actual college entrepreneurs quietly building their dreams. These individuals, with skill, passion and drive, but few resources at their disposal became the newest well to tap.
A (Sometimes) Poisonous Well
There are many experts willing to share their time, who do so freely with no expectation of compensation. But in my own experience and from anecdotes others have shared with me, there are some who take advantage of what are supposed to be pro bono meetings. It’s silly to expect a lawyer to go through the time and effort to draft your contracts and agreements for free; their field is for profit and generally beneficial to all parties involved, and it’s fair for them to expect compensation, whether equity or cash. But there are lawyers and accountants who will take your hour meeting and turn it into an hour-long sales pitch.
What to Expect from Your Pro Bono Meeting
When a business professional agrees to meet with you “pro bono,” there’s a few things you should expect. First, that you’re going to get less out of it than you had hoped. Second, that they are meeting for free now so that they’ll be compensated later. This can take the form of deferred payments, exchanges of equity or agreements (explicit or implied) that when you have the money. In one such meeting we were told that he’d be willing to do our trademarking for about $3,500, a reasonable sum for an established profitable company. However, since we were a startup in our infancy, we could barely afford our minimal operating costs, much less his price. But as we danced around the issue, we learned that it only costs about $350 to submit your trademark to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While these meetings are useful, it’s beneficial to be careful, ask questions and do your own research.
How to Save Yourself Thousands
If your company is built around a product or products, it is paramount to protect your intellectual property (IP). This is done by filing a patent application with the patent offices of whichever countries you’re seeking protection in. It took us months to file our IP. We were bounced from attorney to attorney each making an offer we either couldn’t afford, or making deals that they ended up backing out of. Through this grueling process we learned that it only costs around $700 to file a patent to the USPTO (and sometimes less), but we were thoroughly unqualified to do it ourselves. This is when my partner discovered the incredibly useful UpWork. It has freelancers in every area you could imagine (including law, accounting and marketing), and because they are working freelance, they are not burdened by the charge structure imposed by firms allowing them to work for much cheaper while still providing quality work. We ended up filing our patent for around $1,000, which was thousands less than some of our quotes.
Ultimately, there is very little that you can’t do on your own. If you are so possessed, you can file your own patents, trademarks and run your own accounting and marketing. In your company’s infancy, it’s usually advisable to do your own paperwork for registering your business, and keeping track of your finances through online resources. However, as you grow, it is advisable to get professionals involved, especially for your intellectual property. You may also find yourself needing a helping hand to grow your social media presence. In these intermediate stages it is my recommendation that you seek out freelancers to get these jobs done. It will likely be cheaper, easier, and a more transparent process than if you were to go through traditional means.