As CEO of LegalZoom, John Suh helped transform the company into the nation’s leading provider of personalized, online legal solutions and legal documents for small businesses and families. Bryant Stibel partnered with LegalZoom in 2014, with Jeff Stibel as Chairman of the board.
CEO Emeritus, LegalZoom
Q: What brought you and the Bryant Stibel together for your latest work with LegalZoom?
A: I think in the Internet business, when you meet talented people, you figure out a way to keep them in your life. Jeff Stibel and I have a relationship that spans over a decade. We partnered together at Web.com and Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, and now he’s a board member at LegalZoom. With LegalZoom, I asked him to join our board of directors because I needed a great operator that really understood our business from multiple angles – because it’s not enterprise and it’s not consumer; it’s small and medium businesses and that’s kind of where Jeff lived. Moreover, he clearly understood subscription, which is where we were moving to.
Q: How do you view your relationship with the Bryant Stibel team?
A: They are not consultants and they’re not investors, they are both. I would say, I view the Bryant Stibel as an extension of my C-team. I think of them as strategic advisors. They are flexible, they are there to help. They began as equity investors offering assistance as part of their equity investment. Then, when we had need for a really significant block of time from them, we went to a more formal engagement other than investment because of the sheer number of hours and people and time frame required a different structure for it.
Q: Which part of the Bryant Stibel approach stands out to you most?
A: They have been very flexible with our team – if there’s a special project they can dive in on, fantastic; if they want to be a sounding board to any of my C-team, there is a counterpart on the team that they can bounce ideas off of. They offer a number of ideas as operators – they’re very respectful of other operators, and that’s why I see them as an extension of the C-team.
Q: How does Bryant Stibel solve problems differently than others would?
A: They know what it is to be giving advice outside of the company relative to inside, so they’ll share things that have worked for them and then leave it to the operator to decide whether that’s appropriate for that particular situation. They share a case study of something they did in the past, identify the problems, show how they solved them, and detail what they would do if it happened again. As an operator, you take that as it is; it’s not necessarily a recommendation. And, if you want help with execution, they are there to help. If they can help in 10 hours or 100 hours, it is what it is. When people can provide help, we have to align appropriately towards the equity – and I think that’s what is unusual about Bryant Stibel. The Bryant Stibel team provides enormous value-add that’s hard to put a price on.
Q: What do you think works well in Bryant Stibel’s approach for advising others?
A: Bryant Stibel is very focused on aligning with the shareholders and with the management team in execution. They don’t have any conflicting interests – they are there to help. They’re not there to sell, they don’t want credit, they literally are there saying: no one needs to know that we are assisting. We don’t need to pound the table. Anything that we put out is by you, not by us. We’re just there to help. We can be your silent partners through everything. We don’t need credit, but we do want to add value because we are equity holders.
This only works when both the company and our partner are tremendously confident in each other’s capabilities. They have a wildly unique business model and it requires an A+ Rockstar to even attempt it.
Q: What is expected when your team engages in an offsite with Bryant Stibel?
A: Our offsites are impactful. Out of those offsites comes decisions and strategies that will make a difference. The real value-add for Bryant Stibel is that unlike an advisor or consultant that may parachute in on a one-time event with passing knowledge of the company, we have had deep and frequent interaction at multiple levels between various members of my team and various members of their team. We get to elevate out of the business with a set of peers that understand our business. My team looks forward to those off-sites because there’s a substantive impact to the business – but also because there is great food and wine.
Q: What would you say is the unique value of Bryant Stibel?
A: Their value-add in business is they understand subscription, economics, and business models and SMBs at an incredibly deep and rich level. That is not a common skillset. So, if you have an SMB subscription business, it would be criminal not to get their assistance in my opinion – they’re going to add value; and they’re going to add value as operators and as partners with an equally rich set of experiences and case studies and with some proprietary intellectual capital. That’s where I think they shine in a way that is very rare.
Q: Ultimately, would you say that Bryant Stibel has unlocked potential at LegalZoom?
A: Yes, I believe that is their purpose. I think what’s important for people to understand about Bryant Stibel is that they’re not a consultant, they’re a partner in the truest sense of the word. What I like is that they’re a bunch of people working to make a difference; they are about having an impact and enjoying the business challenge. It’s different when you’re hungry. Hunger can be a great motivator, but too much hunger can create disruptive behavior. I think what you have with Bryant Stibel is a group of really successful people that don’t have a chip on their shoulder because they’ve been really successful, they’re confident in their abilities, and they are there to help.