Katie Richards is the CEO and founder of Virtual Legal, a law firm that manages legal transactions online for people buying and selling businesses, franchises or property. The firm helps with contracts, trademarks, wills, setting up companies and other everyday legal needs. The business was launched in 2013 with the vision to provide legal services to everyone, regardless of financial background or geographic location.
“I realised there was no way for people to self-help if they couldn’t afford lawyers or had simple questions,” Katie explains. “They were asking their mates and getting bad advice, or going to Google, but often the answers they found weren’t relevant to their situation and did more harm than good. So, I set up a way to supply information and show people how to do the parts they could themselves, then I’d do the rest.”
Virtual Legal now has clients from across the country and will soon launch a self-service platform, Law on Earth.
What type of business do you have?
Virtual Legal is a private company. I set up the business so that I could operate it from anywhere and, by default, this also meant the customer could be anywhere and access my services too.
How many employees does the business have?
We have three full-time employees and several part-time contractors.
How did you raise the capital to finance your venture?
I already had some savings, I sold a few things and I bootstrapped everything else – it’s been a hard slog!
What’s your professional background?
I have a business degree and a law degree, and diplomas in marketing, commerce and company administrative functions. While studying at university I worked part-time as a legal secretary, then as a paralegal, and I completed my articled clerkship towards the end of my studies. Post-graduation I worked as legal counsel for various companies, including Domino’s Pizza and NAB, which gave me the finance and customer service skills to start my own business.
Had you run your own business before?
My mother and I ran KM Cookery when I was a kid. We baked quiches, lamingtons and other delicacies and sold them in bulk to our local supermarket. I also did ironing for the neighbours and Mum taught me about budgeting from a young age. I had business ideas before Virtual Legal, but I shared them with friends so they could run them or I just put them into an ideas folder for a later time, as I never imagined I would have my own business.
Where’s your business located?
I work from New Farm, but the Virtual Legal office location on our website is Eagle Street, Brisbane City. That’s where our reception panel scans all the mail and patches through all the calls. Other members of staff work remotely from the Sunshine Coast, Melbourne and the Gold Coast.
What value do you place in business plans?
Business plans are very important, but you need to be flexible in your approach. They need to be live strategy documents with metrics you measure constantly, and you reshape your direction based on metrics and market conditions. I have done a lot of research and development on the technical side of things, so my business plans often involve setting an outcome, finding the technology that could work or the people who have the knowledge to create a solution, and then creating a path to achieve it.
What are some unexpected benefits of owning a small business?
You have flexibility, but this is also balanced with responsibility. You can’t just go home and not worry about what’s going on in the business. You also get to build a new group of business friends who understand what it’s like being in your shoes.
What’s the biggest challenge in running this type of business?
Working big hours with limited cash flow – we charge fixed fees, so we don’t make as much money as other legal firms. This means we have to be lean in our operations and constantly forecast cash flow.
How do you market your business?
Our business is mostly marketed by our clients, through BNI (Business Network International) and referrals. I also speak at business events and we receive media coverage from our success in industry and business awards.
How do you manage risk?
I have a good relationship with my accountant, my personal insurance advisor and my business insurance advisor, and they all speak with one another to ensure I’m properly covered. I also have a business continuity plan in place, so if anything happens, there is a back-up plan to keep the business operating. We do risk education within the business and build key performance indicators and metrics around risk, so that we’re minimising any risks inherent in the job and insuring what we can’t minimise.
What’s been the best financial investment you’ve made in your business?
That would have to be the Law on Earth platform - who would have thought software development would cost so much? It is the next step up for us, as it will help close the gap on the access to justice issue and enable us to help millions of people, and scale globally.
How do you stay up to date with the latest business information?
My team and I keep an eye on the market and use Google Alerts to monitor what’s happening worldwide. I also travel to tech events around the world where I pitch the company and collect feedback from potential customers and investors. I have a solid group of entrepreneurial friends too, and we all share information.
Who do you turn to for business advice?
I have a strong team that supports me. My business coach helps me grow Virtual Legal and navigate through a never-ending list of priorities, while my accountant is extremely handy when it comes to advice about financial strategies, R&D and practical tips. My partner is my daily sounding board and I listen to my team, friends, family and clients – they throw practical, everyday considerations at me and I make sure we can manage expectations.
What three things should someone consider before starting a business?
- Make sure you have considered the lifestyle change it will mean for you, your partner and your family.
- Budget so you cut back expenses and have enough funds to support you and your family for at least six months, plus have some funds available for the business.
- Develop a plan for where you want to take your product and be specific about what problem your product solves. Just following your passion doesn’t pay the bills and if you provide something the public doesn’t need, you may not generate enough revenue to survive.
Where do you see your business in a year’s time? Five years’ time?
Virtual Legal is likely to double in size at a minimum over the next 12 months as we’re growing very quickly at the moment. The Law on Earth platform will launch in June 2019 and then we are due to launch in New Zealand and the UK by the end of the year. We have people in Canada, the Philippines and the USA keen to license the system and roll out in those regions, so in five years’ time, I anticipate we will have Virtual Legal in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and have Law on Earth operating globally.
What’s the greatest lesson you have learned in business?
To plan far ahead and double-check your insurance policies. I had a major accident in January 2016 that stopped me working for many months and I wasn’t covered by income protection. My business crumbled because we had prepared for every other person to not be in the business except me. My advice is to stress-test your financials for decent periods of time – over six months - and get advice on your insurance policies to ensure you will be covered while you are in the start-up space and not earning the same income.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have not tried to do it all myself! I also would have focused more on my health so I could perform better, rather than working seven days a week the first three years.