Tell us about yourself, Ryan.
I’m the VP of Legal at Bolt, where I manage the legal, compliance, people operations, talent, and internal communications teams. Prior to joining Bolt I was head of Legal, head of Partnerships, and privacy officer at Houzz, the leading home platform. I started my career as a corporate lawyer at a Silicon Valley law firm, and have been the first legal hire at five companies since then.
How did you find yourself in your role today?
Most of my career has been spent as the first legal hire at different startups. Building a legal function from scratch is a unique experience and one I’ve had the good luck to be able to do five times.
Before you joined Bolt, you stood up the Legal team at Houzz. What were your biggest learnings from that experience?
Houzz was the experience of a lifetime. My biggest learning was that it’s amazing what a small but mighty legal team can do if you hire and empower the right people. My two AGCs, Hissan Bajwa and Sharon Lee, were more than capable of running their own legal teams, but they bought into the Houzz vision and the three of us were able to support nearly 2,000 people in 10 countries across three distinct business divisions by reducing bureaucracy, working independently and focusing on creating pragmatic business solutions. When we brought on Samantha McKay as our commercial expert, things really kicked up to another level.
What advice would you give to first-time GCs?
It’s funny you ask! I’m actually hosting a TechGC conference on this topic the week of Dec. 14. I’d encourage any first time GC to attend. We’ve got a lot of great content from an incredible panel of speakers to share. For me personally, becoming a GC means you have to be fully focused on outcomes. You’re a leader of the company and can’t hide behind just doing your job well. What are you going to do to move the whole team forward?
Tell us about Bolt. What does Bolt do and how does Legal play a strategic role in driving business initiatives?
Bolt helps online merchants serve their customers. There’s so much competition in e-commerce for eyeballs and solutions to acquire users and offer competitive pricing. But much of that effort goes to waste if you can’t offer your shoppers an easy, trusted way to complete a purchase on your website or mobile device, and make it easy for them to come back as a repeat customer. That’s what Bolt does for our customers.
We have an incredible team, and Legal is no more central than anyone else. However, we are highly strategic, because we create the connective tissue that envelops and supports the rest of the organization and ensures that we are consistent in our dealings with customers, shoppers, partners and investors. We are also responsible for simplifying the complexity of legislation, industry regulation and data privacy regulation, to paint a clear picture for business teams so that they can do their jobs with confidence.
You’re hiring for a senior counsel right now. How are you scaling your legal team? What priorities do you anticipate?
Well, I’ve always said startups don’t get trophies for having the most lawyers. But I’m excited to hire a strong number two lawyer who can help lead the company in a variety of initiatives. Beyond that, given what we do as an enterprise software company, I think there’s a clear need for a go-to-market machine that can keep pace with our growing sales and partnerships teams. That is where Ironclad comes in. I had a great experience using Ironclad at Houzz, and am currently implementing Ironclad again at Bolt. It was one of my requirements to take the job! And with the way our product is evolving in a complex regulatory and industry environment, I anticipate needing a product leader who can advise our product and technical teams, and who can focus on regulatory compliance and data protection. Sooner rather than later. So if you know anyone great, send them my way!
What brings you the most satisfaction in your role? What makes you say, “Nailed it!”
One of the best aspects of leading in-house Legal is you often have a unique line of sight across the organization. You can see the broader picture more easily than other leaders because you support all teams. So I find a lot of satisfaction when Legal can lead the process of synthesizing different internal viewpoints and external considerations into a unified action plan that balances interests and serves the overall company.
What are your priorities for 2021?
Just to keep building infrastructure to support the team as it scales. I’ve always believed you should try to write yourself out of a job by creating a team and system that can survive without you. That could mean staffing up for specific expertise, or distilling your judgment into playbooks the team can follow, or programming your negotiations into Ironclad so that the commercial teams can self-serve.
How is Bolt handling remote work? What has been helpful in preventing burnout?
Bolt has been uniquely well-positioned to thrive in remote work. We have always been a “writing over talking” company that focuses on organized written exchanges of information and decision making. So while 2020 has been difficult for everyone, our way of working has actually translated well to a dispersed workforce because we had already trained the team to move decision making away from the water cooler and onto tools like Asana.
I don’t have all the answers about how to prevent burnout, which I think is a serious problem when people start working at home desks that are 10 feet away from where they sleep, and when home and work and weekdays and weekends start to blend. But I think authentically caring about the well being of your teammates and encouraging them to take mental health days, and get outside for walks and fresh air, is a good start. Learning to prioritize and separate what is urgent and important from fires that you can let burn is also necessary to prevent overload. In this regard, Bolt is well positioned. We organize our workflows deliberately, so that we can create impeccable agreements with clear due dates for top priority projects, and be explicit and intentional about pushing lower priority projects back.
What in-house legal trends are you seeing that you find particularly exciting and/or interesting?
I imagine that in the era Abraham Lincoln practiced law, everyone had the same five law books and your effectiveness was determined by how well you could remember and synthesize that material for your clients. Obviously technology changed all that. With the emergence of legal tech, we can automate the most routine and repetitive parts of our jobs, and buy ourselves more time to be strategic contributors to our companies.
What certifications do you think are essential to succeed as an in-house lawyer?
I’m probably not the best to answer this question, but I believe the ubiquity of data privacy and security considerations suggests it can’t hurt your career to become IAPP certified.
Who, or what, inspires you?
Courage, honesty, integrity.
What would you tell your 25-year-old self?
I might start by suggesting it’s not a moral imperative to close down every bar you visit. Beyond that, I’d say trust simplicity over complexity, and do not be deceived by people who try to sound smart with buzzwords and name-dropping.
Are you a mentor? Who have been your mentors and why/how did you approach them?
I’ve never thought of such things so explicitly, but I believe in relationships and try to be available to anyone who finds my story interesting. Recently, I did get involved with a mentorship family through APABA Silicon Valley, which has been fun. On the flip side, there are people I’ve met who have been incredibly important on my path, whether they knew it or not or considered themselves mentors. I had the chance to meet Laurence Wilson, the GC at Yelp, early in my career, and hearing his story and how he was going about building Yelp Legal had a profound impact on me and gave me courage on my own path. But he might not recognize me if we were in the same room.
What are two things people don’t know about you? Fun facts or secret talents?
As a teenager I traveled to China for a month to study martial arts and compete in a very random tournament in the middle of nowhere. I also like to fiddle with musical instruments and dream of having a quarantine family band with my kids. We have one song kind of down (The Scientist, Coldplay).
What book are you reading right now?
My answers to these questions! Prior to that, the Obesity Code, which I highly recommend.
Meet other legal leaders in this series, including Joel Benavides, Head of Global Legal and DPO at Redis Labs; Jennifer Chung, GC of AccuWeather; Ryan Black, Director of Legal Ops at Opendoor; Florence Chan, Legal Ops Manager at Cloudflare; and Deanna Sheridan, GC of Spartan Race. And if you’d like to get new jobs and invitations to exclusive member events, join the Ironclad Community.
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