After five years holding the position of entrepreneur-in-residence at a leading Canadian-based law firm Fasken Martineau, Jeff Dennis is used to being asked the same question: Why would a company, especially a law firm, have an entrepreneur-in-residence?
Extending entrepreneurial expertise
While there is no single definition for an entrepreneur-in-residence, the traditional role began in venture capital firms to vet investment opportunities. The position has rapidly expanded to large technology companies, universities and government agencies. With the growth of the startup economy, other corporations joined the trend of bringing an entrepreneurial perspective to corporate executives.
“The position of entrepreneur-in-residence and an appreciation of its importance have expanded to large corporations but the title is unusual for a law firm. The legal industry is very hierarchal and it’s often hard to innovate in law firms. But it’s happening,” says Dennis. The firm has broken new ground as the only full service law firm with an in-house entrepreneur-in-residence.
As a son of a long-time member of YPO, Dennis grew up in an entrepreneurial family. After graduating from law school, he practiced law briefly before going on his own way in 1989, setting up his business in the financial sector to help early stage businesses raise capital. By 2003, inspired by personal insights and stories of entrepreneurs from around the world, he co-authored a book on entrepreneurship, “Lessons from the Edge,” a collection of stories by 50 entrepreneurs of their biggest mistakes in business and the lessons that they have learned.
One year later, Dennis sold his business but remained passionate about supporting entrepreneurs. For the next five years, he worked as a professional mentor and angel investor, before joining Fasken Martineau as their first entrepreneur-in-residence.
From entrepreneur to intrapreneur
At Fasken Martineau, Dennis began to leverage his skills to bring the perspective of the entrepreneur to the firm and help with meeting the legal needs of their rising number of small technology clients. The first function of the new role was to give business advice to the firm’s early stage clients, helping them understand and identify their legal needs and articulate their business model. With his background as a serial entrepreneur and lawyer, Dennis was able to bridge the gap that the firm was experiencing with the growing segment of startup clients.
The second part of his role involved acting as an “intrapreneur,” which Dennis described as “running a small business inside the firm.” By creating products and programs that are valuable and accessible to startups, intrapreneurship has helped the strategic growth of the firm. For example, a startup program was launched for early stage technology-oriented companies based on a subscription model where they can get legal service in return for affordable monthly installments.
“We incorporate the companies, move their intellectual property into the company and give them consulting hours and other services that they need and can now afford,” says Dennis. To date, Fasken Martineau has helped more than 80 companies from different sectors benefit from the program to harness their potential.
The entrepreneurial mindset
“In 1989, being an entrepreneur meant being a hustler, a conman. Today, almost everyone has a startup mentality,” says Dennis. He attributes this transformation to how economic growth or GDP is no longer creating growth in employment.
“Technology has delinked labor from economic power. Technologies like blockchain will get rid of intermediaries. The millennials have figured out that they have to be self reliant and that entrepreneurship is a solution,” he adds.
While essential across all industries, Dennis acknowledges a successful entrepreneur requires a special mindset: “The first question I ask entrepreneurs is ‘Does your new company solve a problem?’ Then I ask, ‘What is the solution? Is it a disruption or just incrementally better?’”
From his lifelong experience as an entrepreneur, Dennis is also aware of what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur. “It takes an element of self reliance, a feeling that I can take care of myself, as well as fearlessness and courage to become a successful entrepreneur. An entrepreneur also needs to have the humility to surround himself with good people and not get intimidated by people who are smarter and more experienced,” says Dennis. Another success factor is to invest in lifelong education to keep up with the pace of change led by technology. “People used to refer to the tech industry but today every business is in the tech business. If not, they will be out of business soon because someone will compete with a disruptive innovation.”
Fasken Martineau is a sponsor of YPO Innovation Week, a member-driven, weeklong series of more than 50 events focused on the many varying aspects of innovation with programs held in every region of the world.