AJ Shankar – Founder and CEO of Everlaw

I’m excited that design matters. Just because you use a niche enterprise product, you shouldn’t have to struggle with an ugly and hard to use experience.

AJ Shankar is the founder and CEO of Everlaw, where he leads a team that is building the world’s most advanced litigation platform, beginning with ediscovery. Prior to Everlaw, AJ co-founded Modista, a company that made shopping for apparel more intuitive. AJ has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UC Berkeley and an A.B. in Applied Mathematics/Computer Science from Harvard University.

Where did the idea for Everlaw come from?

I worked as a technical expert for law firm Hagens Berman for several years while I was pursuing my computer science Ph.D. I got to see first-hand some of the difficulties that lawyers were having when dealing with massive amounts of data. With my computer science background, I could see how their experience and efficiency could be significantly improved with the right technology. With the help of Jeff Friedman, a partner at the firm, I came to see that there was a real opportunity to reinvent the set of technical tools lawyers rely on to do work.

What does your typical day look like?

I spend about 25% of my day on company administration and management, 25% on high-level planning and discussion, 10% on product design, and the remaining 40% on whichever high-priority tasks I have at hand.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I work with our business and development teams to understand a pain point, mull over the best possible user experience to solve the problem, work with our designer to sketch out a proof of concept, and then convince an engineer that it’s worth implementing.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m excited that design matters. Just because you use a niche enterprise product, you shouldn’t have to struggle with an ugly and hard to use experience.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I keep lists for everything important.

What was the worst job you ever had? What did you learn from it?

In high school, I went door-to-door with some friends to businesses in my hometown, offering to build a simple web presence for $100. It sounds like a good deal now, but this was in the mid-90s, and we were way ahead of our time. The local dentist, for instance, thought it preposterous that he’d need a web page. We were rejected by everyone. I learned that you can do the greatest things in the world for your customers, but it won’t matter unless you’re addressing their pain points.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would focus on building out our business team sooner.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over – and recommend everyone else do?

Focus on our product’s user experience.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Great customer service. It is one of the things our users mention most often. They derive a lot of peace of mind from knowing that we’re going to handle any thorny issues that come their way. It has led to a lot of business via word of mouth.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

As an engineer, I didn’t invest heavily enough in our business processes at first, because our product was selling itself. But viral growth is difficult between competing firms. Moreover, people can’t use the product, no matter how good it is, if they’ve never heard of it. To overcome this oversight, I invested heavily in building out a great business team who could increase awareness of our company and focus on converting that awareness into sales.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’d like a service that synthesizes and summarizes the latest wellness, nutrition, and exercise science – because that information changes so quickly. Just tell me whether eggs are good for me or not!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I bought a good set of headphones. They help me focus when I need to, and also let me listen to some great music again. (With two kids at home, this is a rarer occurrence for me than you might think.)

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Google Apps, Podio, Github, eShares, Microsoft Office 365, Feedly, Pocket. I love that they’re accessible anywhere — on my computer or on my phone — and they all have relatively forward-thinking design.

What is the one book that you recommend entrepreneurs should read, and why?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This is not because it helps you manipulate your employees or your clients, but because it helps illustrate the various ways you can be manipulated by environmental forces to make suboptimal decisions. When you’re running a startup, you have to make dozens of decisions a day, and this book will help you make them as free from bias as possible.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture novels, wrote elegantly about just how harmoniously technology and humans can interact. The future does not have to be dystopian!


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