“Talk to anybody who will listen about your idea. That’s the way that you improve it.”
Michael Buckworth is an anomaly: a lawyer who’s also an entrepreneur. He founded the only UK law firm working exclusively with startups, and he’s the author of Built on Rock: The busy entrepreneur’s legal guide to start-up success.
If you’re setting up a new business, you’re already interested, amiright? But even if you’re not, there’s a huge amount to learn here about how to develop your intellectual property (hint: don’t over-protect it) and how to make complex material accessible and engaging. Plus a helpful new twist on the classic ‘the dog ate my homework’ trope…
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Michael Buckworth, who is a qualified solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales and the founder of Buckworths, which is the only UK law firm working exclusively with startups and high growth businesses. He has passion for entrepreneurism and he’s advised countless startups over the last 10 years.
He’s been entrepreneur in residence at London’s Southbank University and University College London for several years. And he’s a regular speaker at industry events. And he’s also the author of Built on Rock: The busy entrepreneurs legal guide to startup success.
So welcome to the show, Michael. It’s great to have you here.
Michael Buckworth: Thank you. Yes, very excited to be here.
Alison Jones: It’s fantastic to have you and it is quite an unusual mix, isn’t it? The entrepreneur and the lawyer, they are probably sort of different ends of the personality spectrum. So let’s start with a little bit of your personal story. How did that happen?
Michael Buckworth: Yes, so I studied law at university as many lawyers do. And then I did the slightly traditional thing, I went to work in two big international law firms. And I did that for 10 years or so. And then during the last credit crunch back in sort of 2010, 2011 I found that I wasn’t doing the work that I wanted to do.
So I was a what we call an M&A lawyer. So I was basically buying and selling listed companies. So sort of half billion pounds plus, by the way sounds incredibly sexy and cool and very Ally McBeal. Actually four o’clock in the morning on a Sunday morning, feels a little bit less less cool, but anyway that’s a separate story.
And one day I said to my boss, look, you know, we should be working with start ups, Uber and Deliveroo were sort of just at the beginning of their journeys back then. And this seemed to me to be a pretty cool way of growing and nurturing some new business that would soon become the firm’s clients.
And I did a bit of that and then I really got the bug for it, it was something I really enjoyed. And I ended up quitting the firm I was at and setting up Buckworths. And so this is, what, Buckworths is 10 years old now. And we’re quite unique as you said in the introduction in that we’re the only firm who works exclusively with startups and high growth businesses.
And it does make for quite an interesting outlook because I will speak to, you know, probably 10 or more new entrepreneurs each week. And they all have completely different business ideas and they’re coming from completely different spaces. But what I discovered very quickly is that actually those initial conversations are very, very similar and were really three things that entrepreneurs are worrying about particularly when they talk to a lawyer.
So, the first thing is, the legal stuff is so complicated, what do they need to worry about? And I think one of the challenges that I talk about in the book is that entrepreneurs can see these myriad of legal things that they don’t really understand, and it can actually stop them progressing.
And so one of the things that I quickly realized is that my job is to help people figure out what does and what doesn’t matter, and allow them to leave to one side the things that are not priority. So that’s the first problem identified.
The second problem is really around putting all of this stuff into sort of focus and understanding what people need to get right in the legal space in order that they don’t screw things up in the future. And when you set up a business, you know, you have limited resources, what you care about is nailing the stuff that is important and could sink your business if you don’t get it right. And then parking the stuff that’s less important for the future. And, you know, you can raise investments and then you can worry about the more expensive and more complex legal things.
And then the final piece was really around helping people manage risk and particularly when it comes to legal stuff. One of the things that I talk about quite a lot in the book, is identifying how to get the right advice and where to get it from.
And one of the mistakes that I see the whole time, and lots of clients come to us, what they’ve done is they’ve gone to a precedent website, they’ve downloaded a precedent document for a fiver or a tenner. They’ve used it without necessarily understanding what it is. And of course it’s not tailored to their business and something’s gone hideously wrong.
Anyway, all of this prompted me to say, all right, you know what, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I have a lot of the same conversations and I can add a lot of value very quickly to our clients. So let’s put it into a book so that those founders who want to get ahead of the curve can do that and sort of come to the startup space a little bit more comfortable and a little bit more educated in a way as to what’s important.
Alison Jones: I’ve heard that several times before actually, there’s slightly a bit of a kind of, I’ve written this book so I don’t have to have the same conversation 500 times. Here’s the book, here’s the stuff you need to know.
But what I love about the way that you draw it out as well, is it can seem that the legal stuff is tedious. Where you want to focus, as you say, on developing the product, on getting customers, on your marketing message. And it’s just that kind of, you know, if you put these really simple foundational pieces in place, it frees you up to do all that cool stuff and it saves you wasting your time and energy on it down the line, which I thought was a really excellent point.
And I might, on a personal note when I set up my company seven years ago, one of the things that I did when in the planning stages was I went around everybody I knew who was running a business and saying, what do you wish you’d known before you started? It took me ages, and then when I was reading your manuscript, I was like, if I’d had this, things would have been… it would’ve made life so much easier. So yes, I thank you, but slightly through gritted teeth, because if you thought to do this seven years ago, it would have been really, really helpful.
Michael Buckworth: It’s actually really weird because I set up a business as well. I set up Buckworths 10 years ago and I did very similar thing to you. I went around and spoke to lots of different people. What did I need to worry about, because I was a lawyer, I had no business experience. I had no idea about marketing and all the stuff that is involved in a business. So I did exactly the same thing.
I think the weird thing, you alluded to it earlier, the weird thing in a way about me is that I have these two hats on. I’m a lawyer, of course, but I’m also an entrepreneur. And so a lot of the things that I’m talking to clients about I have actually gone through them myself, and I’ve had to figure it out.
And I think it really helps me help clients because the worst possible thing, I probably shouldn’t say it, but the worst possible thing is lawyers who know everything about the law, but they simply don’t understand how it impacts on reality and how it impacts on the sort of commercial aspects of running a business. I do because I’ve done it.
Alison Jones: And there’s a pragmatism…
Michael Buckworth: …there’s a pragmatism, yes…
Alison Jones: …yes, there’s a real kind of hardcore kind of pragmatism in a sense of, this is a thing, but you don’t have to worry about it just now, which I really, really liked in your book. Yes.
And another way that you kind of bring that, although I’m just thinking back to what you said at the beginning about the four in the morning thing on a Sunday morning, but actually that’s quite good training for entrepreneurship, isn’t it? So maybe there’s more in common than we thought.
But you don’t write a dry legal handbook. One of the things that you do do, which I think is really exciting, is you use Lucio, and Lucio is an entrepreneur setting up a business and you kind of use this archetype through the book and you tell the story and you talk about the issues that he’s facing, and then you go on to discuss how it might apply to you.
I mean, just talking about it from a writing perspective just now, where did that come from and how did it help and why did you use it?
Michael Buckworth: It came really from, it came from the original idea that when I do events, when I speak to clients, I try to bring it back to reality. And so, you know, if I’m talking to a client, I can give an example of an issue that we’re talking about that we’ve dealt with for another client, obviously on a no-names basis, all that kind of stuff.
But I think it’s so much easier to understand issues and problems if they are put into reality. And so Lucio was really a mechanism to enable me to do that. So we follow Lucio through his sort of early journey of thinking about an idea, looking at the risk of it, figuring out how he’s going to execute it and then going through ownership of IP and all the things we talk about in the book. And it was just a nice way to be able to put the advice and the guidance that I’m sort of talking about in the chapters into practice. So people can see how all the stuff we’re talking about how that will come to life in a real world situation.
Ironically, a separate point, one of my very good friends turned round to me and said of course the reason you’ve really use Lucio is because you want to be a fiction writer and you’re this poor lawyer who is writing this obviously incredibly engaging legal handbook. But what you really want to do is write to fiction story. And so maybe there’s a tiny bit of that as well.
Alison Jones: So is there going to be a sequel, are we going to follow the adventures of Lucio? I think business fiction, that’s a niche. We haven’t got that.
Michael Buckworth: There is probably a good reason for that. I guess.
Alison Jones: Yes, you could be right, sometimes just because it’s a niche, just because there’s this gap in the market, it doesn’t mean you need to fill it. Yes, that’s true.
But what it does do is really keep it engaging and as you say, practical and real, and I think it’s a nice, I mean, for people just interested in the writing of the book, as well as the whole kind of being an entrepreneur and getting the law stuff, it’s a great example of how you can make it really engaging.
And people often use case studies and stories, but they tend to use them quite ad hoc and to illustrate specific points. When you have that kind of continuous thing going through of one character, it builds up a lot of capital because people understand the story, you don’t have to keep explaining the context each time. So it’s nicely done. I like that device, I think it’s a good one to learn from.
One other thing that really struck me in the book actually is intellectual property, which of course is foundational.
Michael Buckworth: Yes.
Alison Jones: You talk about how getting feedback on your idea is so valuable, but so many entrepreneurs are terrified about talking about their idea in case somebody nicks it, and it struck me that that’s actually very similar to writing a book, isn’t it?
You have this brilliant idea for a book and you don’t want to talk about it because somebody else might go and do it. So if you could just talk about that from the perspective of the legal aspects of running your own company, but perhaps reference the value of sharing ideas and why actually sharing them isn’t as dangerous as you think.
I think that’d be really helpful.
Michael Buckworth: Yes, sure. So it literally is probably the most common thing that early stage founders are worried about, the idea that somebody will nick their idea. I think there’s a couple of ways of breaking this down, but maybe starting out on the pure legal bit. When you look at protecting IP, intellectual property, what you are actually talking about is protecting the execution of an idea.
So an idea itself is not something that you can sort of protect or certainly not something that you can get registered protection for. It’s only when you execute it that you have that protection. And people become, I think, sort of overly paranoid about this idea that people will nick it and being slightly flippant my experience is that when you talk to investors, investors have a really simple business model. They are going to give you a load of money and you are going to work your guts out for the next, you know, five years, essentially making them rich, right? That’s the model. They don’t have the time, or frankly the desire, to steal your business idea, execute it themselves. It’s just not what they’re trying to do.
And then as far as other co-founders, or as far as founders are concerned, every single entrepreneur believes that their idea is the best idea out there or else they wouldn’t be dedicating their life to it.
You kind of have to, right. It’s really unlikely that another entrepreneur is going to suddenly jump on your idea and nick it. And even if they do I think people forget the value that they bring to an idea.
You know, a business idea doesn’t just pop out. It doesn’t just appear. It comes from the experience, the background of the people who create it. And to give an example, I speak to, you know, call it 10 entrepreneurs each week. I have a massive network. I could, if I really wanted to, you know, call up a bunch of developers, get them to develop an idea. I could go to graphic designers, get them to do the graphics. I could replicate a business idea that somebody told me about. Obviously I wouldn’t, but if I tried it, it simply wouldn’t work.
And the reason is because the ideas that people have got have come from their experience, it’s come from their career or something that’s happened to them. And they’ve done a load of detailed thinking about it and what they pitch to somebody or what they talk about to their friend in the pub is a sort of tiny, encapsulated and simplified version of their probably quite detailed concepts.
And just from my experience, that’s not something that you can copy and replicate. And so my advice is frankly talk to anybody who will listen about your idea. That’s the way that you improve it. You get validation from some people, you’ll get people telling you that it’s rubbish and that you need to tweak it. And that’s valuable in itself. And it helps you develop your concept and get it as good as it can possibly be.
The worst thing that I think people can do is have this idea, keep it to themselves, not share it because it just becomes something that is so tailored to that own opinion, that it probably won’t work in the real world.
The example actually that I heard, which I thought was a really good one, one of my really good friends is a therapist And if you have a problem, something that is really stressing you out, every therapist will say, talk about it, go and talk to your friends about this problem that you’ve got.
And why is that? Because when you’ve got a problem and it’s just in your head, of course we catastrophize, it just becomes a bigger and bigger and bigger problem because there’s no external influence on it. Whereas when you talk about it to your friends, you go to talk to a therapist, you get different perspectives and that helps you manage the problem and put it into context.
Business ideas are the same thing. In your head, you just reemphasize what you think is right. Put it out there, talk to people about it, you get those external perspectives and it becomes a better proposition.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s such a great way of putting it. And the other thing of course, is that people will say, oh, you should speak to X. I will introduce you to, Y. It sort of increases your circle, doesn’t it? And it can open opportunities that you might not otherwise have. Yes.
Michael Buckworth: Yes, exactly.
Alison Jones: Let’s talk about the writing of the book as well, Michael, you know, going through the process of creating a book, what has that taught you? What surprised you? What did you discover along the way about yourself and about your topic in the world?
Michael Buckworth: Well, firstly, writing a book it’s very hard. I had never thought how much work it would be, to be honest. And secondly just purely from a legal perspective, or a lawyer’s perspective, we lawyers, we write in a very specific way. It’s kind of tight drafting. It’s designed to be very clear and that is appalling for anybody to read.
So what I did was I put together this, I started out with an outline, an outline of what I wanted to cover. That was actually relatively easy because I had a pretty clear idea of what I was trying to do. I then went and wrote, you know, started writing the chapters and to put it this way, I was bored of what I…
Alison Jones: …that’s always a bad sign, isn’t it?
Michael Buckworth: …there is no way this can ever get in the public domain, but I sort of put it all together. And then what I did is I went to work with a ghost writer and she was absolutely amazing. So she’s called Ginny Carter. And I probably shouldn’t be pushing her book whilst promoting my own.
Alison Jones: We love Ginny.
Michael Buckworth: She’s written a fantastic book about writing,
Alison Jones: Yes, Your Business, Your Book. It is brilliant. Award-winning book, indeed.
Michael Buckworth: There you go. Exactly. And she was absolutely fantastic. And she took the turgid, painful sort of script that I have put together and has created this fantastically engaging, really easy to read, sort of guide and the incredible thing from my perspective is that all the information that I had originally put down is in the book. It’s just, it’s in a format that is easy to read, really engaging and really interesting.
So yes, I guess my probable advice would be, particularly if you’re coming from a sort of a background where writing is not your strong point, then get input on it because certainly Ginny added an astonishing amount of value and has created a book that works.
Whereas if it had been left to me it would have been quite painful, I think.
Alison Jones: And did that process, particularly the bit at the beginning where you were sort of putting it all together… is there anything that surprised you about that or that fed into your, a very leading question isn’t it? But that sort of fed into your practice and the way that you work with people now?
Michael Buckworth: Writing a book forces you to solidify your views. And it forces you to really, really think hard about how you present issues, particularly when you’re doing what I’m trying to do, which is simplify them.
As lawyers, we live with an extraordinary amount of detail. That’s the nature of our job. What I’ve always tried to do when talking to clients is cut through all of that detail and give them the stuff they really need to know. So the simplified version that helps them understand what it is we’re trying to achieve and how they get there. But obviously that’s quite easily done over the phone when you’re talking to somebody, but trying to put it into a book and explain in enough detail that people can really get their heads around some quite complex concepts, but also in a simple way that they’re not, you know, reading a whole load of legal mumbo jumbo that they probably don’t want to read and don’t need to know; that’s actually quite hard.
And it really forces you to understand what it is you’re trying to say. So I think that was certainly the big thing. The second thing, certainly for me was, it actually taught me a lot about what really matters to founders. And it’s one of those things that, after 10 years working with founders I would have said I had a pretty good idea of what was important and what wasn’t, but when you’re putting together a book that’s covering all sorts of different issues you have to, you’re forced to prioritize and identify what’s most important and what is less important. And that’s certainly fed through. There are things that I would, just in an initial call with clients, have talked about before I wrote the book, that now I realize are just not relevant.
It’s something you can deal with later, it’s less important. And that really has fed through to the practice and how we work with clients and how we sort of communicate with them.
Alison Jones: That’s such a great point because actually a book is linear and you are therefore forced to decide what comes first and how you relate all the things together. And that in itself can be a really useful process, can’t it?
Michael Buckworth: Exactly.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. So if somebody is listening and they’re at the ideation stage, what would be your best advice to somebody who wants to write a business book on their field of expertise: is it find Ginny?
Michael Buckworth: Yes, hire Ginny, number one. But beyond that, I think it’s about understanding the structure of what you’re trying to say. I actually spent a really large amount of time putting together the structure of the book. So if you like, sort of the chapter headings, that must have taken me 10 or 15 goes and tweaks.
And it’s massively important, as you say, you know, a book is linear, it has to fit together and it has to make sense as people read it in the order it’s been written. And the way I did it was I looked at the sort of timeline of launching a startup. So, you know, starting at the beginning, structure, all that kind of stuff. And then finishing, investments, because that tends to be the end of the sort of launch phase, if you like.
So that sort of worked for me, but I think anybody looking at writing a business book, it’s setting out that framework, so that then you can slot in the detail. I think certainly from my perspective, the worst way of doing it would have been to have started writing because I think it would have just become a dump of information with no coherency to it.
And somebody, probably Alison within your team, some poor editor person would have to have gone through it and figured out how the hell to fit it together. So yes, structure, I think is the most important bit.
Alison Jones: Yes, your editors will thank you. It’s so true.
Michael Buckworth: Exactly. Yes.
Alison Jones: And we’re always interested in the gnarly detail here as well, Michael: when you say, I put the structure together, how? Was it post-its? Was it a bit of software? Was it just big bits of paper? What does it look like when you’re doing that?
Michael Buckworth: So it started out as a word document with me sort of putting titles together. It’s amusing you say post-its because it ended up with a wall of my office at home with different colored post-its. So what I did is I sort of got what I thought were the key topics, which I’d always had a fairly good idea on, I put them into an order that was based on the sort of you know as founders progressed through the startup journey and that sort of made sense.
But then it was about figuring out what specific topics needs to go into each chapter. And so I created a massive, I mean there must’ve been, I don’t know, 80 odd post-its with different topics on, and I’d kind of done them on different colours for different chapters, and I was just trying to move them around and obviously some topics could appear in different chapters.
You can talk about elements of IP in an IP chapter, or you can talk about it actually raising investment. So moving stuff around, trying to figure out how it all fitted together. My better half, I think thought I was going a little bit crazy when the whole wall of the office was covered in post-its.
And I would say it looked like a work of art, but I don’t think it did. I think it was just a mess. But anyway, it worked really well. And somewhere buried in my phone, I probably have photos of the post-it wall and the wall of book.
Alison Jones: I love that. And do you know, there are brilliant, brilliant software packages that will help you organize ideas, but there’s nothing like standing in front of a wall of book, just physically going and moving things. Yes, and also you can, if you have an understanding partner, you can leave it up for a couple of days and ideas mature and you suddenly see it, but it’s there, you can’t kind of switch it off the screen.
It’s there and demanding your attention, yes.
Michael Buckworth: Yes, the problem I actually had was the dog, because the dog saw it as a bit of a challenge. So he kept nicking the post-its and then running around the house. And obviously when you tried to get them off and he thinks it was a fantastic game and there’d be zoomies around the house with the post-it.
So yes, maybe if I was doing it again, put the post-its slightly higher, but anyway,
Alison Jones: Above dog level. There’s probably crucial points that just ended up at the bottom of his basket.
Michael Buckworth: Yes, anybody who thinks I’ve missed something, blame it on the dog.
Alison Jones: Blame the dog. It’s a very sophisticated version of the dog ate my homework, isn’t it? I love that. Thank you. That’s a great tip and a great image of the of the wall and the dog.
I always ask people to recommend a business book as well. Michael, so obviously apart from Built on Rock, which everybody should read if they’re starting a business, what would you recommend? What book has really struck you as helpful?
Michael Buckworth: So I remember reading, probably a while ago now, there were a number of books that were written about The Lean Startup. And I can’t remember who originally wrote the first.
Alison Jones: Eric Ries, is the kind of classic Lean Startup.
Michael Buckworth: Exactly. So I read that and I thought it was a very interesting approach. I actually totally disagree with elements of it as it happens, but I think that the principle is probably right.
And certainly, it’s certainly useful for me actually, because almost every entrepreneur has read it. And you know, it sometimes seems a bit like a Bible to founders. And so it’s useful certainly from my side to have read it and be able to jump in a little bit when people are taking it too far.
I think the good thing or the important thing as a founder is to read around as much as you can, make sure that you’ve read the views of other people, but I also think it’s important to take it with a pinch of salt, you know, different people have different experiences, they have different views.
No one book is right about how you set up a business and what you should do.
And so I think the more books that you read, the more balanced your view can be and then you’re in a better position to make a decision, right?
Alison Jones: Yes, and that’s a great point actually. It’s not just about the books that you read for your own use. It’s about if you’re dealing with a certain group of people, reading the books that they’re reading and just being aware of the kind of the assumptions and the ideas that are populating and driving the way that they’re behaving.
Michael Buckworth: Yes, yes, exactly.
Alison Jones: Yes, really interesting. Thank you so much. And Michael, if people want to find out more about you, more about Buckworths, more about Built on Rock, where should they go?
Michael Buckworth: You can obviously buy the book everywhere. It’s incredibly exciting, absolutely, buy the book. I mean, in fact, buy many versions of the book, feel free to buy multiple copies. I will be very grateful and very supportive. If you’d like to find out more about me though the place to go is to our firm’s website, which is www.buckworths.com.
So Buckworths, with an S on the end, .com There is a specific page on the website related to the book. I’ve put on there a number of instructional videos that cover some of the topics in the book and some sort of key thinking that we do.
If you buy the book there are also some links in there, that link to some special content that we’ve created for readers. And they’re also accessible through the links in the book, but in the backend of our website. So yes, that’s the place to go.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. And I will put all those links. Well, not all the deep links, but I’ll put the links to Buckworths and so on up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com if you’re driving along, listening to this and haven’t got pen and paper handy, along with the transcript of the interview as well, which I think will be really, really helpful to read back on.
So thank you so much for your time today. It’s been really, really brilliant ranging through entrepreneurship, through the legal stuff, and also the writing stuff as well. It’s a sweet spot for the Extraordinary Business Book Club, so thank you.
Michael Buckworth: No problem, thank you for inviting me.