Lee says he “knew from the beginning” that leaving his job behind was something he had to do:
I left two years ago with some ideas of how the traditional legal industry could be disrupted. I talked to a lot of people, and eventually decided on what Caseflex is today.
Today, Caseflex’s product aims to provide lawyers, researches and brokers with incredibly easy access to federal case dockets and filings. Now just days after its public launch, the company is gearing up to face giants like Lexis Nexis and Bloomberg Law, both of which, Lee says, “charge an arm and a leg for public data that’s hard to get to.”
Lee is talking, in part, about Pacer, the federal database of electronic court records. Caseflex is built around Pacer’s shortcomings; in fact, Lee hopes to make it so you never have to deal with Pacer ever again. When he first began presenting this idea to lawyers, their eyes lit up.
From Lawyer to Programmer
“I started completely green — not knowing anything,” Lee said. “I reached out to my personal network, and I was able to raise a seed round from friends and family.”
By early 2012, Lee raised his round and hired third-party developers to realize his vision. In three months, he had a prototype to serve as a proof of concept. Frustrated with the slow pace, Lee parted ways with his developers, and decided to learn how this new prototype actually worked.
While getting his feet wet, Lee found a Rails programmer to build out the backend, and the two settled on a unique arrangement that helped Lee grow as a developer. “We had a productive relationship over the next year or so,” Lee tells us.
By the end of that year, Lee was contributing to the Rails backend, and amidst various pivots within the legal space, Caseflex found its focus.
Like countless other founders, Lee looked to successful entrepreneurs for advice. He was told:
- Focus your vision, and
- Learn to code yourself
This advice didn’t soak in immediately, Lee says, “but when you go through the process of starting your company and you make the mistakes — you learn it yourself.”
There’s a lot of trial by fire for first-time entrepreneurs. You have to be agile enough to shift gears.
In April, Lee and his team had their product ready for a beta release. Simultaneously, Lee again expanded his responsibilities, taking full control of his application.
It finally clicked for me at a certain point that, as a solo founder, i need to be in control of my own ship. That doesn’t mean you have to be able to handle every single minutia, but there really shouldn’t be any black boxes, because that’s the only way you can move anything along in a productive way.
Four months later, Caseflex launched publicly.
“At first,” Lee says, “I believed I didn’t need to know about databases. I didn’t really need to know anything about typography; I’ll find somebody else for that, I thought.”
But, according to Lee, “what people don’t realize is that learning the first 20% of something doesn’t take a lot of investment — and the benefits are enormous.” From project timelines to accounting errors, knowing at least enough to hire the right people for the job is key.
Obviously there’s the danger of micromanaging everything and not getting help when you need it. But, it’s better to explore everything yourself first and then hire people when you need them — rather than saying “let’s just bring in a marketing guy, so he can do all the marketing stuff.”
When it comes to programming, however, it appears Lee went much further than his first 20%. That said, his long-term plans don’t involve him as the CTO of Caseflex.
Lee doesn’t push aspiring, non-technical founders to become full-fledged programmers. But, he says he “would recommend they take some time to learn how their product should be built. Then, take the smallest steps you can to build a simple first prototype” — even if that’s a wire frame.
The worst thing you can do is say “I have a great idea for an app,” and then raise 50k, and hire someone to build it in four weeks.
You can’t view it as technical stuff — you need to take the time to “peel away the layers.”
Most importantly, you have to get out of your comfort zone.