Keeping a Watchful Eye on Legal with the GC of Canary

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By Mirra Levitt
| In-House Voices

Josh Beser

Josh Beser, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Canary, on thinking business, making the right hires, and excelling at in-house lawyering…

Tell us a bit about Canary and your legal department.

Canary launched in 2013 via one of the largest crowdfunding hardware success stories in history. Canary markets a security device approximately the size of a bag of coffee that sits on a countertop. The device has an HD camera, motion sensor, humidity sensor and air quality sensor – all of which can be controlled through an iPhone or Android app. At the core, it allows people to maintain a connection to places and environments they care about from far away. Looking forward, we see the connected home evolving, and we see ourselves being responsive to our user base in terms of new product development.

Canary has about 100 employees in New York. We have a small legal team – which has ranged from one to three people during my tenure.

What was your approach for making those hires?

Structuring the hiring process took a lot of hard thinking. I started by mapping out (literally on a large piece of paper) everything we do as a company. I thought about how products move through our production systems (e.g., product development, engineering, manufacturing), then through sales channels and finally, after sales are complete, all of the different types of interactions we have with users through service plans and inbounds to our customer experience team. I also layered in supporting issues like fundraising, real estate, insurance, and data privacy and security.

Next, I defined the timeline of our needs. Ultimately I opted to plan for the next twelve months, choosing to think ahead but not past the point where I felt I could realistically know what we might need. Finally, I considered my own strengths as a lawyer and where I might want help.

With all this in mind, I thought about what we could realistically do internally and where it would add the most value to be able to do something in-house instead of working with outside counsel.

The cost-benefit analysis wasn’t entirely about reducing spending. For example, hiring a narrowly focused in-house patent prosecutor would have saved us more on legal in the short term than any other in-house hire. But hiring that specialist would have put more pressure on me and the third member of our legal department to cover a wider range of issues, so it didn’t seem like the most valuable thing an in-house lawyer could be doing. Ultimately, I decided that hiring generalists with a broader reach (and some intellectual property competence) who could cover more things and be more flexible internally would be a better move than hiring a great specialist. 

What does business-minded lawyering mean to you at Canary?

Everyone at Canary is pushing in the same direction and solving for the same things. My job is to get involved in the most important things we're doing, help solve the related problems, and pave the way for us to deliver on the things we need to deliver. Some of that problem solving is purely legal. But I also spend time thinking about how we should structure deals, how should we think about our partners and how we should think about our products and users in ways that aren’t strictly related to legal work but are crucial to what we’re building as a company.

What are three things you wish you’d known for your first 100 days in-house?

  1. Understand that the speed at which things are moving and the speed at which things can change are related. One of the hard things about coming to a very fast moving company from a big corporate environment is the pace change. When I was in a large in-house legal department, there were decisions that could take a year. At Canary, an equivalent decision could be made in two weeks. That’s tremendously exciting, but there’s also a feeling that you have a short time, and you want to make sure you’re doing things the right way. Now, with a year of experience, I'd like to be able to go back and tell day-one me a little bit about what that feels like. 
  2. Lay the groundwork for reaching out to other lawyers when you need help, and then don’t be shy about doing it. It’s tremendously helpful to be able to call and say, “I'm dealing with this crazy thing I've never seen before, have you?” I have a deep bench of great people who I've known for a long time who would have been happy to take a call, and I probably should not have hesitated to do that.
  3. Invest in process and structure in the beginning, especially if the company is growing quickly. I don't think you have to go too process-heavy, but some things need to be structured. It’s better to get structures in place as soon as you can because as companies grow, it becomes harder to undo habits and change entrenched processes and systems.

How do you manage the tension of (relatively) slow legal versus fast business?

I don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s a daily challenge to make sure everyone understands what risks we’re taking, what a good enough solution looks like, what the perfect solution looks like and what it will take to get to each of those solutions.

We we do the absolute best we can with with limited resources. We have to constantly prioritize. We have to constantly evaluate, assess and reshuffle as we figure out how much we care about each thing. You pick your battles. For significant things, though, we find a way to get there and do it right.

What has been the most surprising thing about your role at Canary?

The breadth of the role – even though I understood that intellectually before I started. Once I started the role, I saw everything that I didn’t know about before joining and how the sausage is made for the things I did know about initially – which, together, just means more things happening across a larger group of areas. Some days, it seems like every 30 minutes I’m doing a different job and thinking about a different area of law.

What advice would you give a lawyer who wants to become more business-focused and better integrated with the business side?

First, it’s crucial to be interested in the business side of what you’re working on. At Canary, I feel lucky to be working on an interesting problem set at an interesting time.

Beyond that, ask a lot of questions. Get over-invited to meetings, and then beg off if you realize it's not that important for you to be there. Find opportunities to talk with the heads of important functions on the business side—or whomever you are otherwise closest to on business side. Talk about what you’re working on and ask about their priorities, but also broaden the conversation: ask how one particular matter you’re working on fits into general business strategy. Your goal is to understand the underlying reasons for deals and decisions. Understanding this will make working together easier, and you’ll become a better business lawyer overall.

Finally, find places to contribute beyond contract drafting. Find ways to be seen as more than just the lawyer on the team. Focus on substance and being helpful in as many ways as possible. Be patient and allow your role to evolve over time. Your patience should have limits though –if you’ve tried to broaden your role substance-wise and can’t get it done because the company isn’t receptive, it may be time to move on.

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