Corporate Attorney to Fintech Founder
This article was published in the Summit 2021 issue
by Tony Lewis, Cofounder & CEO, Aumni
My journey into entrepreneurship features no shortage of pivots. After finishing law school, I joined the US capital markets team at Latham & Watkins. This early experience as a corporate attorney helped me to hone skills I now deploy as a CEO. When you work at a very large law firm’s corporate legal practice, you get sustained exposure to the C-Suite much earlier in your career than what’s typically afforded a junior counsel. What I learned in those first few years were amazing professional development skills like time management, prioritizing multiple projects at the same time, and dealing directly with executives.
Fresh from law school, though, I knew very little about corporate law in particular—it’s nothing like the bar exam, to say the least. During my early experience with Latham, I met a lot of CEOs seeking guidance and counsel—from me. At first, I found this dynamic surprising. I felt like I didn’t know much of value and wondered what I could bring to the conversation that I hadn’t read in a textbook.
Determined to offer more, I began observing corporate leaders with an unwavering intention to up-level my impact and perspective. In meetings or the boardroom, as they made critical decisions, I felt my confidence grow watching decisions take shape in the arid but notorious conference rooms of Silicon Valley, an experience that was incredibly validating. I thought again and again, “I’m capable of doing that work, too.”
These were folks from a wide range of industries, who knew their specific niches very well but had no choice, ultimately, but to reach conclusions in real-time. They’d ingested a ton of information in advance, of course, but when it came time to make a judgment call, they had to make that commitment on the spot. Until I was exposed to the inner workings of these business dynamics, it looked to me like the leaders had all the answers mapped out well in advance. Seeing that a good deal in business is determined right there, in the moment, on the spot, I realized that I could make those calls, too.
Before joining Latham, I knew I would pivot from practicing law into leading a business. And even though I knew that going into my tenure with the firm, making that move wasn’t easy. Of all the organizations serving the corporate community, Latham is one of the best. It was a great place to be and the exposure to the C-Suite at a junior level was extraordinary. I left Latham nevertheless, but it would still be a few years until I left the legal profession outright. In 2014, I joined Wilson Sonsini, where I worked on M&A.
This role provided excellent CEO training. At the earliest stages of the M&A process, while establishing the terms of the transaction, you serve as an individual contributor driving the deal forward around the best interests of the business you represent—much as a founder drives her startup forward. As deals mature and documents grow more complex, you then become much more of a quarterback relying on teammates responsible for parts of the business such as managing IP, the tech stack, or sales and marketing. In this way, I learned very quickly that deal delay is synonymous with deal risk. Placing your trust in the hands of specialists in their craft is, therefore, essential.
Before starting Aumni with my cofounder, Kelsey Chase, I founded a small law firm to specialize in M&A. This brief but successful experience confirmed for me that I’m not one to marinate long. If there’s a big opportunity, I like to go after it much more aggressively. And running a boutique was not the big swing I thought I could take. I put the basic idea behind Aumni to an individual client I was serving as personal counsel to at a time when the first significant changes were starting to form around tech-enabled legal services. I thought initially of developing software focused on workflows related to servicing venture-backed companies and made my pitch almost in passing by posing the question of whether such a thing seemed tenable to my client. He asked me how much I needed to get started and offered to fund the venture, and that’s when it was my turn to make a decision on the fly.
At the time we started Aumni, the idea behind businesses moving to Salt Lake City centered around cost efficiency. We used to say that SLC can build a company capitalizing on Bay Area valuations but operating on Utah capital efficiency. Although that delta has closed significantly since we set up shop here in 2019, it’s also been wonderful to witness some well-deserved valuation increases for companies who have made the same decision. Today, the valuation delta between early-stage companies in the Mountain West versus the Bay Area is closing rapidly.
As the early phases of my career took shape, it became clearer and clearer that investors operating in the private capital markets often struggle with making multimillion-dollar decisions because they have little access to trustworthy, accurate data. Aumni was created to mitigate this problem. My legal training brought an element of critical thinking to bear on the decision-making process that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I learned early in my career that the desire for efficiency across the legal profession far outweighs almost any other incentive, and that includes increasing billable hours. The desire to deliver data-driven answers promptly to clients is paramount, and ranks as highly to those in the legal profession as it does in any industry today. I’ve witnessed firsthand the need for what Aumni offers professionals in this space. With Aumni, we’re transforming the data quality in private capital markets and sharing insights that bolster transparency across the entire innovation ecosystem.
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