Shaper: Dana Denis-Smith

Show aired on 7th October 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Mack the Knife from Shirley Horn. Hello this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss. Thank you very much for joining. Jazz Shapers is where you get to hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside those brilliant musicians you also hear from someone who is shaping the world of business. We call them Business Shapers. I am very pleased to say my Business Shaper today is Dana Denis-Smith. And Dana is the founder of Obelisk Support. They are an online platform for outsourcing legal support and she has been doing some fantastic things in that space. You are going to be hearing lots from her very shortly. In addition to hearing from Dana, you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and then on top of that some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including Blue Lab Beats, one of my son’s favourites, Classic Cannonball Adderley and this from Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder with the iconic Isn’t She Lovely. It always put me in a good mood. Dana Denis-Smith is with me today as my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers and she is the founder of Obelisk Support. They are an online platform for basically providing big companies with legal support on an ad hoc basis, on an adaptable basis which is a good thing because this hasn’t been around very long and we will talk about why it’s a good thing. Hello Dana, how are you?

Dana Denis-Smith
I am very well.

Elliot Moss
Nice to see. Tell me you started this business back in 2010, why? Because you were a lawyer and you were also a journalist and you have been a researcher. You have done all these things, why did you decide to be an entrepreneur and why did you decide to set up this business that we are now talking about?

Dana Denis-Smith
Well it’s because I learnt from being a journalist that it’s good to be more nomadic in your working style so from journalism I learned that you can focus on the output, you can file your story on time, nobody asks you where you have been in trying to research it so I tried to apply the kind of rules of freedom of working to law which was very new at the time and the reason why I founded the business because a lot of talent was going to waste because the working conditions were too inflexible. So I wanted to bring back a lot of that talent and enable them to work in a different way. So primarily focussed on mothers, but increasingly a variety of types of working patterns and people that want more freedom in the way they work.

Elliot Moss
So this is back in 2010 and obviously there are other people are now doing sort of similar things, but when you set this up then, was there a kind of, ah this isn’t going to work Dana?

Dana Denis-Smith
Totally. Not least because I was pregnant at the time so I was this pregnant woman with a bunch of mothers from the school gate and it seemed like a really funny you know proposition. So for the first year of business I didn’t really get any business, so I spent most of my time talking to other mothers and basically having a confirmation that there was a problem around how we utilise this talent and how we allow them to drop out of the working force way too soon. So the average life span of a woman in law would have been about ten years when I was speaking to them and that was way too short and they were pushed out for all the wrong reasons. So it confirmed I was going on about the right things, but I wasn’t getting business as a result.

Elliot Moss
And when did you get business? Was there a moment when you went, hold on a minute I know my instincts have been good even though there hasn’t been any business, there haven’t been any people signing up or there hasn’t been any demand coming on the other side for that kind of talent. At what point did you go, do you something this is going to work?

Dana Denis-Smith
All along I knew it was going to work because I just said this kind of if you like a very strong sense of justice and injustice so I knew that I was solving a problem and sooner or later the market will understand that the problem needed to be resolved.

Elliot Moss
But in terms of the actual business happening, that’s the bit I am really interested in commercially when you went, oh okay, I know I am right, which I love in you and that’s what every entrepreneur say that they feel it in there, but when did you go, oh there is money coming in now?

Dana Denis-Smith
So it starting working after I literally got the bump out the way so once I had my child and I was able to come and focus on the business you know more clearly, after kind of the initial days of childbirth. So I would say late 2011/early 2012 is when we started getting on legal panels and you know big places like BT were paying attention and so the commercial started, you know so the money started coming in and it became a viable business if you like.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out much more from my Business Shaper today, that’s Dana Denis-Smith. She is the founder of Obelisk Support. Time for some more music, this Blue Lab Beats for my eldest child, not literally for him but I know he likes them and this is called Keep Moving.

That was the hypnotic sound of Blue Lab Beats with Keep Moving. Dana Denis-Smith is my Business Shaper today as I have said earlier, she is the founder of Obelisk Support and actually we are going to come on to this a little bit later, The First 100 Years which is a charity that she or an organisation she has created to celebrate a 100 years of women in the law, another brilliant thing which I do want to come to as I have said. Just going back into Obelisk Support itself so this idea of having on tap people, mainly women at that point back in 2010 and 2011 that would be able to fill in and do the things because everyone has work to do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit in the office all day, it actually means you can do that work around your own schedule. Were you worried about the practicalities of delivering this because it is one thing having a really good idea and it’s another thing then scaling it. How have you managed to translate great thoughts, a gap in the market to actually something that then can work while you are asleep as it were?

Dana Denis-Smith
Certainly I think that is the biggest challenge of any business is how can you create a very seamless operation, but for me I was very clear from the beginning that unless the client received a very good service, the company couldn’t work. So the idea of having a lot of people working ad hoc at home in their own time, but the client having visibility of these workings just wouldn’t work. So I was clear that it had to be a very seamless client journey if you like, so I focussed very much on that, made sure that the clients get what they need and how I build the capacity required for the project was my business. So I remember for example to one of my early meetings, that was a bit of a disaster with one of the banks and the guy asked me exactly that question and you know I said well you know, I don’t ask you how you manage my current account, I don’t know what’s going on in the background so I need to make sure that all these cogs work really well, but I should have to justify that to the clients. So there was a lot of questions around that in client meetings, but I pushed back early on and I made sure that the delivery worked so every client got what they needed and that we maintain a very kind of you know if you like a secret recipe of how we do it, it’s our secret, but it works.

Elliot Moss
And was it… when these people started to realise what you were doing and I know you have been fated in various, probably more you know more professional publications, people say, oh Dana, she’s a great innovator and amongst other things I think you are an FT short lister back in 2012 I believe. In terms of people realising what you were doing, were you then starting to get calls from women going wow this is fantastic, this is another way. I mean did you sense that and at that point did you realise I really am onto something here?

Dana Denis-Smith
For sure, but in a way I had the confirmation before even the commercial started materialising because I felt there was a hunger for a new way of working because these people felt disadvantaged by the profession so there were looking for an answer and the answer came and they connected very quickly to it. So if you like the supplier base wasn’t an issue because they knew they wanted to work and their brains were very good and they were very highly skilled. The biggest job was on the client side. Articulating the value proposition to the clients so they understand they are getting that is flexible, affordable but is good quality.

Elliot Moss
And was it a helpful thing or a hindrance that you were actually a qualified lawyer which may sound like a strange question, but you know lawyers, and I have interviewed quite a few lawyers who have become entrepreneurs, they by their own admission kind of go, well funnily enough my training sort of stops me taking risks and I have to overcome that. Did you have to overcome the same thing?

Dana Denis-Smith
I would say it helped because in a way I was insider and an outsider at the time. So it helped because the profession connected to me as a lawyer, but I made a very deliberate decision very early that I would not touch of the work that comes in. So I never did any work in the business as a lawyer on any of the projects. I didn’t hold myself as a lawyer, I wasn’t interested in doing the legal work, I was interested in a business solution to legal problems. So I think that really helped because in my mind I was very clear I was in the inside and outside all-in-one and I think that was a good decision.

Elliot Moss
Stay with my insider/outsider Dana Denis-Smith for more about Obelisk Support and we will talk about The First 100 Years as well and the fantastic work she is doing to raise awareness around women in the profession. The latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I meet someone who is shaping the world business. If you would like to listen to any of the two hundred and fifty plus people that I have met in the last few years, go into iTunes, put in the ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’. If you would like to listen on your next British Airways flight you are very welcome to because it is on BA Highlife as well. Dana Denis-Smith is my Business Shaper today, she is the founder of Obelisk Support. They provide legal support to businesses in a very natty way, a secret formula as she called it, the magic ingredients. You need a lawyer on demand almost and you’ve got one there one you go through the right process. You talked about the client journey and again I go back to your training as it were, you were a researcher, you were a lawyer. Is it just common sense when you are mapping out how someone wants to receive a service, could it have been any service or was there something intrinsic to being a lawyer delivering a service to a client or was it not like that at all?

Dana Denis-Smith
Well I think in any, you know I put myself if you like as a consumer and try to understand how I behave and what I expect from a service. So for me this is how I approach how we service. You know it needs to be easy, it needs to be, you know, it doesn’t have to be frilly because we don’t offer a premium service so it’s a kind a you know a very as I call the John Lewis, you know what you get, it doesn’t unravel in the wash and that’s what the business is aiming to do. And I lead from that point of view, how do I feel if I get serviced that way and that is the question I want my team to answer and put themselves in that position of a client and then make it really simply and easy for them to experience working with us.

Elliot Moss
And how many lawyers are now registered with you in your business?

Dana Denis-Smith
So we have now about one thousand two hundred lawyers registered.

Elliot Moss
From your perspective that’s a lot of lawyers in a way because most law firms are not going to be that size at all.

Dana Denis-Smith
Well I think it’s symptomatic of the fact that the legal profession has an oversupply of lawyers. The question is you know can we get the good lawyers that we want to work because we only do business law so it’s really important they have the right quality to them.

Elliot Moss
And how do you ensure that? I am interested in the quality assurance. Obviously if you are hiring somebody into a business, you see the whites of their eyes, you have many interviews and so on and so forth. It’s not perfect, but you get a sense. What do you do to ensure the quality is there?

Dana Denis-Smith
So I have a whole team that is focused on the, if you like the consultant journey. So similar to the, you know, client journey, we have a double you know headed eagle kind of structure right. So the consultants have to be looked after as well and that starts with how they experience their first interaction with us. So the recruitment process is mapped out, they have to have a minimum of two years of experience in a top law firm or a very large multi-national because that’s our client base. So there is a sort of a minimum criteria objective if you like and then there is the culture fit element which involves interviewing and actually seeing the whites of the eyes. So it’s a mix kind of process. It can take about two weeks for it to complete and I think only about 40% of people make it through so.

Elliot Moss
And at what point was there a critical mass? When did suddenly go from just a handful of people up to the hundreds and then into the, you know the serious numbers, when did it pop as it were for the business?

Dana Denis-Smith
I remember actually quite clearly I made a decision at about a hundred and twenty lawyers which was probably about March 2012 that it wasn’t enough because actually when you looked at the availability and how you can build capacity, maybe it would be the equivalent of say twenty people full-time and for the client base, and you know because we were increasing our client base, you know none of the support of these kind of large companies you needed to have a huge scale. So I realised that the only way the operating model would work is to be on a huge scale so at that point we made a decision that we had to get to five hundred within the year which we did and then we got to about eight hundred so it has become a very big focus of the business acquiring new suppliers all the time.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from Dana Denis-Smith my Business Shaper today, the founder of Obelisk Support. Time for some music, this is Cannonball Adderley and Bossa Rio Sextet with Groovy Samba.

That was Groovy Samba – I just want to say the word groovy again. That was Groovy Samba with Cannonball Adderley and Bossa Rio Sextet. I have been talking to Dana Denis-Smith about setting up her business called Obelisk Support, a very innovative change to the industry as it was then and it was around basically taking all that fantastic resource which was sitting at home in between parenting, but also having time to do work and wanting to work but not in the conventional go to the office way and you’ve indeed met a very important need in the market. Tell me a little bit about the First 100 Years which is this organisation that you’ve created I think back in 2014. What was its purpose and where are you now with it?

Dana Denis-Smith
So the purpose of The First 100 Years was to chart the journey of women in law because I qualified as an English Solicitor, so this is my only if you like inheritance is also being a Solicitor here and yet I had no idea about the history of when women came into the profession and yet all the time I was seeing stories about women were not advancing and there were no enough women in leadership positions so I wanted to understand where we came from in order to understand the present and actually to help change something in the future because I think I am a great believer that unless you understand where you come from, you cannot really go in any one direction, you don’t really know where you are going so that was the purpose.

Elliot Moss
And just talking a little bit about you. Where were you born? In Romania is that right?

Dana Denis-Smith
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Okay. And you came here when? When did you come to the UK?

Dana Denis-Smith
I came over twenty years ago.

Elliot Moss
Okay.

Dana Denis-Smith
So I came, I ended up going to the London School of Economics to study and so I basically ended up settling here and getting married, all the usual story.

Elliot Moss
Do you still, do you think there is a benefit to the fact that you weren’t here for the first twenty years of your life, that you kind of see things in a different way to someone who was born here and brought up here?

Dana Denis-Smith
I would agree not necessarily because I was you know born abroad, I think it’s the county and the way the system which I grew up that I think is relevant because I think that kind of controlled economy, you know I had no… I can’t claim any early entrepreneurial journey, there was no marketplace in Romania, it was Communist, and I think this idea of intervention in the market which was a very Communist Socialist way of running an economy is a really interesting one because I realised actually I applied in the business because unless you make a match happen, very easily you know if you allow market forces to play, you will always end up with a client wanting a full-time employee, full-time on site in their office. So the only way we can create a really successful recipe for the business is because I intervene in that marketplace and I make the marriage happen between clients and lawyers. So I think it’s in a way very informative of my way of running the business.

Elliot Moss
And now do you still feel very much like you’re Romanian in your head or you’re British or you just don’t think about things like that anymore, is it kind of irrelevant.

Dana Denis-Smith
I will have to use the kind of very unfashionable way of saying I am a citizen of the world which is not maybe a good thing these days. But that’s how I feel. I don’t feel I am, you know, if you like I think I feel like a Londoner, I don’t feel Romanian or British, I feel I belong here.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for Dana Denis-Smith, my Business Shaper. We will be having our final chat with her plus playing a track from Madeleine Peyroux. That’s after the latest traffic and travel.

That was The Summer Wind from Madeleine Peyroux. Dana Denis-Smith has been talking to me about all sorts of things about interventions based on learning how to live or not live in a Communist country, interesting lesson over there that you have applied over here and not expected I guess and we have also been talking about The First 100 Years which is your, the organisation you’ve created, you are a bit of creator, you’ve created to celebrate the 100 years of women in the legal profession. One of the things you are doing is the Inspirational Women in Law Awards, you’ve created them. That’s happening the end of October. Nominations are in. What are you actually celebrating there, just tell me a little bit about what you are looking to highlight?

Dana Denis-Smith
The award is part of, if you like the search for the next generation of women lawyers that we want to feature part of the centenary anniversary. So rather than kind of just deciding who we think is inspirational, we decided to create a whole awards around it so people can nominate people they fully inspired and it’s open to anybody of any age as long as they’ve worked for ten years in the legal profession. So it opens up a new range of names for the project because very often you know it’s very easy to determine who the first woman President of the Supreme Court was or who the pioneers were, but it is much more difficult to know because the profession has expanded so much recently who will be the women of the future and this is what we are looking for.

Elliot Moss
There aren’t many pioneering people in the law in general, you don’t associate the law with great transformations and breakthroughs and entrepreneurs, it’s quite a conservative profession, respectful if its own history and so on. Have you enjoyed being a bit of a disrupter?

Dana Denis-Smith
I would say I enjoy being an inventor so disruption wasn’t part of my motivation. For me I am interested in change and in progress and in changing people’s lives so that’s what excites me more than the idea of being labelled a disrupter.

Elliot Moss
And why are you so interested in change and progress and things because most people just carry on with their daily lives don’t they, they just get on with it, they do their job but you’ve done something different. Where do you think that drive has come from Dana?

Dana Denis-Smith
I think it’s genetic actually. I think my father was an inventor and I think I learned from him that you can tweak with things and you don’t have to you know rip everything apart for it to work better. You can actually make a few smaller changes and you can really make a difference. So I feel change can be you know very huge and kind of you know explosive, but also there is change, especially in the legal profession sometimes it can be more gradual but with impact.

Elliot Moss
And when are you at your most happy? When are you happiest when you are working. What are the bits of what you do that really excite you, that really generate enthusiasm and energy for you?

Dana Denis-Smith
I am very happy with the team because I think they come to work because they believe in what we stand for. They don’t come to work because they want to earn a wage so it is nice to see the way you know if you like, my motivation is becoming infectious so now they are infecting me in return which is a really nice place to be. I am always really happy when I see that we have succeeded for individuals that sometimes get left behind. You know in particular we are seeing elderly men who get pushed out of the workplace too soon and they suffer quite terribly actually and you know this obsession with youth makes them feel very unwanted and succeeding with them and giving them work and bringing them back in it’s a really positive feeling. So that can be a man or woman. So changing people’s you know life direction and helping them achieve what they want makes me really happy.

Elliot Moss
Well continue to do those things. Those are both very good things to do and pretty big ambitious goals as well for you. Thank you so much for joining me, I appreciate your time. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Dana Denis-Smith
My choice is Hugh Masekela, it’s the South African musician and I picked Stimela. It came out around the time when I kind of came out of Communism and Romania and I think it’s a, it’s a song that captures, it’s such a universal song really. I love the way he manages to mix world music with you know the best jazz kind of you know he’s really elaborate in his style, but also I like the politics of it. I feel I am quite a political individual and I like, you know this a world motivation to change right, so you… I find that he succeeds in making a political song that remains universal to this day and you know the story of economic migrants I think is no bigger than today. You know it’s a huge story of today and it’s going to dominant our conversation for a few years still and he has done it with such passion and with such strength and I really, I like the fact that he used music to convey this message and I think it is very personal to me as well because it’s linked to travel and looking at the world from afar and looking for betterment. So he has a lot of a lot of things that I care about and also he was one of the first people I think I went to see at Ronnie Scott’s so actually I can say I was you know near enough him to kind of enjoy a bit of the glow so I think it’s a great choice.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic. Here he is just for you.

That was Stimela from Hugh Masekela the song choice of my Business Shaper today Dana Denis-Smith. Someone who saw the world as an insider/outsider as she said it, with a little bit of distance you get a different kind of perspective. Someone who believes in change, who is an agent of change, who has done things consistently that are about changing things for the better. And someone who really believes fundamentally in a mission. Her business is all about people believing that there is a better way of doing something and getting behind it and not as she said just working for the wage. Really good stuff. Do join me again same time, same place at 9.00am next week, book your appointment here on Jazz FM. But before that and coming up next, it’s the one and only Nigel Williams.

Dana Denis-Smith

Dana Denis-Smith was born in rural Romania before moving to London, where she studied a BSc in International History and an MSc in Political Economy at LSE. Following this, she undertook the PgDL and LPC at BPP Law School and an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management.

In 2001, Dana became a Research Analyst at IHS Global Insight and a writer/analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, which provides country, risk and industry analysis, across 200 countries globally. She joined Linklaters as a Solicitor in 2005, and was seconded to Free Representation Unit, a charity which offers representation to claimants in employment proceedings in 2007, before becoming Director and Owner of Marker Global, a research agency specialising in strategic investment advice for emerging markets.

In 2010, she became Founder and CEO of Obelisk Support; and in 2014, founded First 100 Years.

Follow Dana on Twitter @ddenissmith.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

I founded the business because a lot of talent was going to waste because the working conditions were too inflexible. So I wanted to bring back a lot of that talent and enable them to work in a different way.

I realised that the only way the operating model would work is on a huge scale, so at that point we made a decision that we had to get to five hundred within the year. Which we did.

I had no idea about the history of when women came into the profession, and yet all the time I was seeing stories about women not advancing and there were not enough women in leadership positions

I can’t claim any early entrepreneurial journey. There was no marketplace in Romania, it was Communist.

I enjoy being an inventor, so disruption wasn’t part of my motivation. I am interested in change and in progress and in changing people’s lives. That’s what excites me more than the idea of being labelled a disrupter.

It’s easy to determine who the first woman President of the Supreme Court was or who the pioneers were, but it is much more difficult to know who will be the women of the future. This is what we are looking for.

My father was an inventor and I think I learned from him that you can tweak things. You don’t have to rip everything apart for it to work better.

Changing people’s life direction and helping them achieve what they want makes me really happy.