From One Guy And A Laptop To Millions In Revenue – with Ed Scanlan

by Tim Jahn on April 8, 2011

Ed Scanlan is the founder of Total Attorneys, a Chicago based company that provides law firms with all sorts of marketing and tech solutions tailored to their needs.  What started as just Ed with a laptop, cell phone, and credit card has blossomed into a business generating millions in revenue.

I invited Ed here to share the story of how he built Total Attorneys and why having an enjoyable company culture is so important to him (they’re going to be having an Oregon Trail tournament on old Apple IIe’s).

Transcript

Tim Jahn: What is Total Attorneys?

Ed Scanlan: Total Attorneys is a managed service provider for small law firms. We’ve got a services platform that provides software to run their office from time and billing to case management, to document management, secure online collaboration with their clients, so a secure portal their clients can log into.

Lawyers can get marketing and leads through the software as well as a virtual receptionist, someone to actually answer their phone 24/7 and schedule appointments or do client intake or really anything you would anticipate being done by someone in the front office of a law firm.

Tim Jahn: So without you and Total Attorneys, the law firm would have to kind of concentrate on all this themselves and take time away from being a law firm essentially?

Ed Scanlan: That’s really our goal. I mean, our mission is to improve lives through innovation in both the access to legal services and the delivery of legal services. So we feel that we have a really good opportunity to make the experience of consuming legal services and the experience of delivering legal services much more enjoyable for both parties involved.

Tim Jahn: Yeah like I mentioned before we started recording here, the law industry, I never think of as a very exciting industry. You think, I mean, no one — usually when you think of law and lawyers it’s usually a bad thing, someone’s suing you or you’re suing someone. And I was reading on your website on the “Careers” page that you guys have examples of the different things you do and there’s softball tournament and talent show and golf tournaments. And it seems like you guys —

Ed Scanlan: We’re actually getting ready for a new one that I’m rolling out. Announcing it at our next all company meeting next week. So a sneak peek; we got Apple 2e’s off eBay and we’re having an Oregon Trail March madness style tournament. So single elimination, Oregon Trail on old Apple 2e’s. So people, we put it out there and people have been playing it like going and hunting buffalos, and forting rivers and getting dysentery and all that —

Tim Jahn: Oh yeah, I remember that game.

Ed Scanlan: — good stuff. So that will be fun. Yeah, we definitely like having the — a lot of activities. We work really hard and there’s a fast pace here and we’ve got a lot to do. But I feel pretty strongly that people are more productive when they create common bonds with employees outside of, “Are we going to get this wire frame coded in time for the next software roll out or xyz.”

If you can create some fun and interesting events — like we do something called “Ugandanized Stash” (phonetic) that’s going to be next month I think where we have a mustache growing contest and you go around the office and you raise money and those who raise the most money win. And the money goes to a project we have going on in Uganda for girls getting them out of the sex trade. So it’s Ugandanized Stash, walk around and you’re in meetings and there’s three people sitting in there with mustaches. And you creep a lot of people out on the L on the way to work. And it’s a good contest and for a good cause.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, I was just going to say, that’s a great cause. And I’m sure it just makes everyone at work excited to see the mustaches. So when you — take me back. So you started this — I was reading in a Cranes article that you, it was you and a buddy in your condo and he was working on the dining room table and —

Ed Scanlan: It’s close to that. It was just me in an apartment over on Damon Avenue next to a bar called Lemming’s if you’re familiar with that block of town area. And yeah, just had a laptop, cell phone and a credit card and thought that there was a need for delivering web services and online marketing services for small businesses. So we weren’t focused solely on legal then, we were called Infrastrategy and we had clients in a lot of different areas from franchise business around kids drawing programs to ticket broker to an international trade consulting firm. And all sorts of places where we were doing it.

But we kept getting more and more law firms and over time, one of our largest clients was a law firm, the partner there and I just really hit it off and we were up to 14 employees in 2005 and really developed a unique niche inside legal. So we decided to partner up together. So he sold his law firm to his partner and then joined me in 2005 and that was when we launched the original Total Attorneys platform in about 45 days right at the beginning of 2005.

Tim Jahn: Okay. So you weren’t purposing targeting law from the very beginning? This kind of happened out of chance in a sense?

Ed Scanlan: I was purposively trying to reinvent the day job. That was my goal. Like I just wanted a work environment that I enjoyed coming to work everyday. And then once we added employees, it was how do we get a way for them to enjoy coming to work everyday? And we sort of organically and interactively stumbled up on the niche with, which with we are now executing with it.

Tim Jahn: What set you apart from other firms providing similar services to law firms at the time or were there any other firms doing the same thing?

Ed Scanlan: Not exactly like us. Now there’s a few that are providing segments on the services we provide but not the full suite combined in one sort of platform. But there were a lot of yellow page advertising opportunities for attorneys, online listing services; we’d be listed with a bunch of other attorneys, sort of traditional yellow page feel but brought to a webpage.

Our offering was unique; we were helping law firm’s scale their business quickly by giving them exclusive access to market their practice by zip code, by virtual. So they’d pick a virtual say DUI or bankruptcy or divorce, and we would give them the ability to market their practice exclusively on our website underneath a particular zip code, one of the multiple websites we operated.

Tim Jahn: And you mentioned that it started off as you and then you just added employees around your day job. How many employees do you have now? How big is Total Attorneys?

Ed Scanlan: I think we’re about 150, somewhere in that range.

Tim Jahn: Okay, 150. That’s a pretty good size. You’re still small but you’re not too small, and not too big. I was reading that, as I mentioned when we were talking before we started recording that you, I was reading that you work in teams of like four to five and then you and your partner kind of step out of the way and kind of let them take ownership for what their working on. Do you want to just tell me a little bit about that idea of working and how that works well for you guys?

Ed Scanlan: Sure. When we started out, that was the way we worked. I mean, it was me and a whiteboard and a couple contractors and then contractors became employees and it was very, it was very iterative and whiteboard something out, someone did a quick design, someone put code to it and we tackled things as a team. As we got bigger, we thought we had to adopt sort of traditional methodology, waterfall sort of processes to develop software and executer projects. And what we found was we were getting less done with a lot more people than we were when there was just a few of us huddled around a whiteboard with laptops banging stuff out.

So started to think what we could do to get back to sort of our roots and came across the agile process and Scrum and started reading it. And it really resonated and reminded me about what we used to be like when we were smaller. So we rolled out Scrum and broke people into small teams, so a team could consist of a content writer, a designer, a developer, a QA person, potentially an architect. And they’d go ahead and have ownership over a portion of either our software or a product line and they’re in charge of basically executing that in two week sprints. So they come up with stories and we help prioritize those stories and then they pull things into a sprint and then for two weeks they go ahead and execute that until it’s done and then you repeat the process and keep going.

So it’s been great for us. We’re now running either Canban or Scrum throughout the organization, which are both sort of agile frameworks. And it’s really, it’s increased employee moral, they feel like they have a lot more control of what they’re working on, it’s not just getting passed from one department to another and no ownership. And they seem to be getting things done with more quality, more predictability and faster. So it’s been a great transition and we’re now a couple years into it, maybe almost three years into it.

Tim Jahn: Okay, so the intrusional scrim rod, I am familiar with that and I have never really heard many bad things about it. But it seems to work real well in the way that you use it.

Ed Scanlan: Yeah, I think it’s actually becoming more the norm rather than the exception. I think you find large corporations are still sticking with waterfall because it seems to fit within their sort of five year planning process and sort of all the corporate controls and governances, they get more comfortable in a long drawn out process. But for smaller business that are comfortable being a little more nimble and adjusting plans and iterating based on customer feedback, I’d say some form of agile is definitely more the norm than the exception.

Tim Jahn: I love — going back to the Oregon Trail thing. I love that because I remember Oregon Trail and that brings back such unique memories for anyone who remembers it. In — so how do you — where I’m going with this is you have to have a — when you hire someone, you have to have people that understand what Oregon Trail is or would appreciate the fact that they’re going to play Oregon Trail at work. What do you look for when you’re hiring someone? What do you specifically look for in that person to work for Total Attorneys?

Ed Scanlan: Yeah, we believe pretty strongly in trying to find cultural fits, people that are going to come in here and appreciate the culture and expand it and further it. One of the things that I encourage every employee when they start is to make this place the round. And I used to point at a conference room wall, and be like, “See that wall, if you think that wall should be red, paint it red.” And after like the tenth or twelfth time of saying it, I showed up and the wall was red for the next time. Someone thought it was good idea.

But just people that are willing to press things forward both on a product standpoint and customer service standpoint. Someone that really wants to make peoples lives better and is passionate around life and passionate around their outside activities whether its sketch comedy or we’ve got a lot of bands here. Or it’s something that they’re getting involved in community organizations or with their church or — you know people that have passion outside the office generally translate to people who have passion inside the office. So passion’s key and obviously being a hardworking, innovative and just a master which the skill set where we’re fighting for.

Tim Jahn: And I imagine you guys are probably a pretty tight knit group with all the different things you do together. You mentioned earlier that you try and get people to interact outside the traditional work setting so that you boost your moral. Are you guys a pretty tight knit group then?

Ed Scanlan: Yeah, I mean, it’s as you get bigger, that’s one of the challenges always is to sort of maintain that culture you had when you were five people. And I think all companies that grow experience that. So I spend a lot of my time thinking about it. Our culture is always evolving and changing so I don’t want to be like we were in 2002. But I do want to be cool for what we are today. And we had a saying when were called Infrastrategy, one of our guiding principles there was “Just Infra-cool”.

And the definition of cool changes as the business changes. But tight knit group for sure. A lot of people have made their best friends inside this company working here. And it’s definitely a group that bands together in good times and bad and it’s, I think it forms a really good bedrock for quality work getting done is relationships that span a little bit beyond just coming in and working together. With that said, I mean, we don’t put pressure on people to go and do different things.

If you don’t show up at Oregon Trail, that’s not looked down upon that you’re not into playing some stupid Apple 2e computer game from 25 years ago. But we try to do enough that at least some of the events appeal to everybody throughout the year. So softball, maybe more someone’s alley than sitting around and playing old computer games. So we’ll do that once the weather gets a little nicer, which looks like it’s happening soon.

Tim Jahn: Yeah, you can move from Oregon Trail to softball then. So 2002 is when you guys started right? But you were the, you were a different company at the time. And then when did Total Attorneys come about? Was it two years later?

Ed Scanlan: Well we launched the platform, I mean it’s all the same people. So the platform went live in March of 2005 and then we officially changed our name in 2007. So all of our customers, the majority of them, once we launched the platform knew us as Total Attorneys and we just called ourselves internally Infrastrategy. And as social media was becoming more and more prevalent and the sort of transparent culture we wanted to expose was something that was real important to us, we realized that the disconnect between what our customers called us and what their employees called themselves was become more and more of an issue.

So in 2007, maybe near the end of 2007, I don’t even remember. But we changed the name to Total Attorneys which was more of an internal thing than our customer’s thing because they all thought of us as Total Attorneys. It was more getting employees to now call themselves Total Attorneys rather than Infrastrategy. But it took a month and then everyone was used to it. And Total Attorneys platform was what was paying for the electricity so I figured they deserved to have their name hanging on the wall rather than another name.

Tim Jahn: That’s pretty funny. So you have the complete platform, I was reading your services and you were listing them off. I mean, you have — now you have a whole suite of services for law firms. How did you go about developing each service? Was it like the law firms would come to you and say, “Well this is great but we could also use this”? And then if enough of them said, yes, you’d add it to your offerings or did you guys like research this or what?

Ed Scanlan: We tried to find pain and just listen to our customers where is it painful. And then try and get a proof of concept as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. And identify can we solve that pain or lessen that pain and then just iterate on top of it. So not every product we put in front of lawyers has been something that has stuck. We started some and shut them off. But the ones that we’re out now in the marketplace with are all ones that have market acceptance, market viabilities, customers, revenue.

And I think product development, you’ve got to be comfortable taking some risks, you’ve got to be comfortable that not every product is going to be a smash hit, homerun. But that by having a good R&D process where you have things that go through gates and you don’t go and do the next round of investment and development and whatever else before you prove that first gate and then you go to the next gate, and then the next gate and now you’re out in the marketplace. And whatever that sort of process is, it’s different for each product. But the customer feedback I would say is really the critical piece and just listening to what your customers want to have done and putting things in front of them and seeing if you can do it.

Tim Jahn: So you’ve been working on Total Attorneys or Infrastrategy for almost ten years now. I mean that’s —

Ed Scanlan: A long time.

Tim Jahn: Yeah. I didn’t — it’s exciting.

Ed Scanlan: Yes, it is a long time. I don’t know —

Tim Jahn: What was that?

Ed Scanlan: I said I almost told my wife without it, it’s definitely been a major portion of my time over the last decade.

Tim Jahn: Definitely. So my question is, what over your experience over the past decade or so, what would be your number one piece of advice for a creative entrepreneur who is looking to, to really bring their employees together in the way that you have with Oregon Trail I think is the most unique way I’ve found yet that I’ve heard from anyone. But what’s you’re one piece of advice for doing something like that?

Ed Scanlan: I think be real. And what I mean by that is just have sincerity behind it. Don’t just have an all company lunch and buy everybody food and spend five hundred or a thousand dollars or whatever and have a lunch. Like those are good, dot hat stuff too. But if you really want to have that culture, it will emanate out of you and people will respect that that you’re really trying and it will go down to every ranks of the company that your managers will feel that, they’re, the people that report to them will feel that.

And the teams around you that, that you really do care that the place is unique and different and a place that is desired to work at. And then that will affect how they treat the culture and it’s sort of has a trickledown effect. So, I’d say sincerity is key. And knowing your employees well and I spend a lot of time just making sure I don’t get too disconnected. I feel like I’m in a fishbowl sometimes, you can see my office here has got all glass looking out to the office there. I call it my fishbowl sometimes because I spend a lot of time in here in meetings and what not. But I force myself to make sure there’s enough time just to wander around and talk to people and make sure that I’m not losing connection with that they care about, what’s important to them and then trying to put things out there that will resonate.

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