Mark Goh, Founder,VanillaLaw™ | Barrister (UK) I Advocate & Solicitor (Singapore) | Accredited Mediator(SIMI) | Negotiator(Oxford) and retired Army Captain in the Singapore Reserves.
In 1992 Mark set his own law firm upon returning from the UK to Singapore after studying law at the University of Buckingham.
LAW FIRM GOING DIGITAL
With the advent of the digital age, he began exploring ways to digitise Vanillalaw, observing that going digital could save the law firm's operational costs in a tremendous manner. Already experienced living overseas, he could also see the potential of the law firm expanding beyond the shores of the island nation of Singapore. So in 2011, he started transforming the law firm to go digital.
DEVELOPMENT OF VANILLALAW DOCS
By 2014, Mark had already been in practice for almost 20 years as an experienced dispute resolution lawyer. He was disheartened to observe that many (SME) business owners were often embroiled in disputes simply because they had no or poorly drafted contracts. The very thought of paying huge legal fees to consult a lawyer was (and still is) a big turn off.
Vanillalaw Docs was developed with the intent of mitigating the huge legal fees. Its an ecosystem developed by lawyers for the business owner to hands on preparing the first draft. The lawyers come in afterwards with the vetting process and advice. Today, Vanillalaw Docs has more than 850 subscribers and counting.
Mark has funded this himself, and recently launched GoSME.org
Indranee Rajah S.C., Senior Minister Of State For Law
(16 May 2017) of Singapore said,
"Tech for more productive interaction with clients: A good example is VanillaLaw™ Docs, an interactive web-based platform created by Singapore law firm, VanillaLaw™ LLC. VanillaLaw™ LLC developed their own online contract template which, when used together with this platform, allows their clients to insert relevant information to prepare the first draft of legal documents.
The law firm reviews this and focuses on issues requiring legal advice and drafting amendments. The end product is still cleared by qualified lawyers but this technology enabled process cuts down the need for multiple or long meetings to take instructions. This saves time and costs for firm and clients.
Mark then started a community called 'Go-SME to encourage Singapore SME's to take advantage of the opportunity in the wider world by using technology to d
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Welcome to The Silver Fox entrepreneurs podcast, a series of interviews to inform, inspire and support men later in life, who want to start their own enterprise for profit, or for pleasure. Hi, my name is Jim James and I started the silver fox entrepreneurs grew in my 50s. Because my friends who were losing their jobs or were bored and felt insecure about keeping their jobs, were asking me how to make money from their own initiatives. I've run my own businesses since the age of 27. In Asia and in Europe, I've also set up peer groups for younger entrepreneurs. And now I think there's a need to share information from subject matter experts, inspiring stories of men who've already started on the journey of making money from their passions, and to provide opportunities to collaborate and to increase the chances of success. I hope that you'll enjoy this interview and learn something that adds value to you do subscribe or leave a rating. And for more information, please visit silverfoxentrepreneurs.life. Welcome to The Silver Fox entrepreneurs podcast. And this week, I have a special friend from Singapore called Mark Go. Mark and I have known each other from all the way back in 1995. When I started my firm in Singapore and Mark has actually just started his own law firm. And today, he is the proprietor of Vanilla Law. And they have a service called Vanilla Law docs. Mark, welcome to The Silver Fox entrepreneurs.Mark Go:
Jim, thank you so much for inviting me on this platform. That's a really, really long time. And I'm so happy to hear you start this business. And I'm ready for your questions.Jim James:
Perfect. Well, I as you're a lawyer, you'll be used to tough cross examination, I think that first of all, really, Mark you and I go back a long way. But for those of people that don't know who you are, just tell us about your journey to where you are today. And what you're doing now.Mark Go:
I started. I started my career in a very unusual way. Most lawyers started out working in a large firm. And then after that, somewhere around the 40s, or maybe getting about 10 years into under then they started their own business. For me. I started out immediately after graduating and getting called to the by in England, in England. And then also going back to Singapore. I started out my own business. So actually I started my own law firm at 26 years old, almost right after school. Why did I do that? Well, it was due to circumstances I didn't find working in a large law firm terribly, enriching. In the effect was I think, just indentured worker. So I quit the large law firm and started on my own. And ever since then, I've been serving the SME market. And I realized that that is under represented market, that people in small businesses and so forth. They haven't got good access to lawyers. And I think in in the one of your podcas, guests, Clive, Clive said that basically a lot of lawyers will will will go for the bigger bigger companies, because that's the big ticket items. But no one was willing to serve this smaller community. So that's how I started.Jim James:
Well and I met you back in 95. So we were both young men starting at around businesses there. And so now you and I both the same age who both has popped over the 50 mark, and you started a new business of Vanilla Docs. Do you want to share with us why you think that being over 50 is an ideal time to start another business.Mark Go:
Okay. Vanilla Law docs is actually a software. It is a document assembly software. I started out I started developing the software actually in 2014. The thing was that by this time, I've already known that there are gaps or problems in the market with SMEs. So a lot of SMEs see lawyers only when when they are in trouble. And it's too late and they've come you know when they are in litigation. That's when the cost legal costs are very high. So I will ask my clients and say, Look why why do you wait why Do you wait until the last minute? What do you wait until you know, this stage? Then you come and see me? Why can't you basically, you know, have some preventive measures in put in. And most of my clients tell me that it is the costs, legal cost is just simply too prohibitive. And, you know, they they can't afford in house lawyers like big companies. So one of the biggest problem was, I mean, that they can't handle is document or agreement drafting. So if a lawyer what you avoided, hire and retain a lawyer to draft every agreement for every transaction, right, there's just going to bankrupt all of them. I went around the market at that point in time, looking for our software that can help my clients. Two other giants at that point was this Rocket Lawyer, the American company, and Legal Zoom, which was another American giant, in the document assembly or agreement, assembly, system, ecosystem. However, I found this software not really up to the par in the sense that, I guess, template engines. So templates basically just allow you to fill in the blanks. But I think lawyers will know that that's not good enough, because scenarios change. And you need to able to, to switch in and out clauses. So I couldn't find a software that could specifically function in that way. And that was why I had to solve the problem of my own and decided to develop a software in house. And then we started marketing this software. And we found out that there was a need, and indeed help a lot of SMEs in Singapore, to reduce their basically their agreements drafting needs, because what what what he does you do, the software sdk you and you basically self assemble with the software. And then you send it over to the lawyer to review. So lawyers charge only the review time,Jim James:
Why would you need to set up a new company because at 50, setting up a new company is a little bit of a risk, and you obviously have a successful law practice already. So you said you want to solve another problem. But what would you say have been some of the problems that you've faced in starting the new Vanilla Law Docs business, and how have you solved those?Mark Go:
Okay, so marketing, sales and marketing was a big, big, big challenge. At that point in time getting getting people to adopt and and basically buy into a new system was very difficult in 2014 2015, because they could not understand how it is used, how it would save costs, how, how lawyers works, and how to work with lawyers. So there are multiple, multiple challenges for us, we had also issues of what's the right pricing, and so forth. So so that was that was the biggest challenge getting market adoption, we had a few. So what we decided to do was to give it free at first just to get the market to play with it, handle the system. And then we got feedback from some clients telling us, you know, how they would work it. So the user experience was very important for us at that point in time. But once once people got used to using the system and got used to how it worked, then it was quite easy because the recommendations came, referrals came. And then, you know, we slowly built a reputation now we have not hit a critical success yet. But I think we are gaining momentum, in a sense that we have now. We have now got Singapore businesses coming on board and also Japanese businesses. And that's partly why reason that's partly a reason why you cannot because I'm trying to reach out to the UK SMEs to see whether this is some thing that UK SMEs would be interested in using.Jim James:
And do you have any experience so far mark of how different companies in different countries are operating with the law? Do you find, for example, Singapore SMEs are more or less savvy about the legal situation than, for example, ones in the UK, are you starting to see any interesting patterns in legal use and use legal knowledge,Mark Go:
the patterns that I see is not cultural specific or geographical, it is not specific to geography, but rather, is specific to the size of a company. Now, what happens is this is that if you have worked in a large corporation, with many people, and you've got departments and got department heads, then you will be aware of you have this thing known as organization, organizational awareness, that means you will be aware on how different functions of the business is being run and how they interact with each other. So let's talk about typical business, typically, any business whether big or small, will have five business functions, starting with the sales and marketing function. And then you have the processes are the operational function, which supports the sales and marketing function. And then you have to hire the people or the HR function, to operate these processes. Now processes and people will need money. So you have the third function for the side, the fourth function, which is finance, which will raise the money to basically fund all your operations and your and your human payroll. And then the last function is structure and law, these are the laws, which, which keeps everybody moving in, in a certain way, so that, you know, people play by the rules, and then the whole machinery is well oiled. Now, if you work in a larger organization, you will actually see and work with people in this different departments or different functions. But for SME, typically, it's a one man show, or maybe two person. So there is lack of awareness that there is embedded in every business, these functions and that has the owner of the company, you will have to basically think in terms of these five functions. And when you talk to your lawyers instruct lawyers, part of the problem of costs is that the owner himself is not able to articulate his problem because he is not able to pinpoint or align his brain with any other functions. So the lawyer is sent on a wild goose chase, thinking that that is the problem. But actually, you know, it's something else. So that's why the real costs for SMEs, sometimes can can be more more than in the light when when you're writing for a larger company. Because simply because larger, in larger companies, they have the experts, who are able to pinpoint a problem and tell the lawyer, this is what I need you to do. So this, this is very common with SMEs and dealing with SMEs.Jim James:
That's a very interesting point. So does the Vanilla Law Docs can help to identify which department or what nature of case the SME owner should be focusing on thenMark Go:
Embedded in the machine is this is that it's Vanilla Law Docs is question and answer is like answering 20 questions, you will soon realize trying to select options and trying to answer that you will have difficulties and when you have difficulties, you will realize why. Because you aren't your is the system or the engine itself presumes that you know, the function that you're dealing with. So these these functions are built into the agreement itself built into the clauses. And when the user starts using it, and he finds that he can answer some of the questions within the clauses or within the agreement selection. That's when he suddenly realizes Oh, these are the things that I may not know, and know things or ought to know. And that's where in the software you can basically call a lawyer and talk to a lawyer. And that's where we start our education.Jim James:
Right. And I can see mark on your website, which is vanillalaw.com.sg. You've even got the Senior Ministry of State for law from Singapore, Indrani Raja, giving you great accolades. In fact, for the Vanilla Law Docs process. So how have you addressed the innovation of the product? Are you are you building that yourself in? And thinking about the workflow and the technology yourself? Or are you outsourcing parts of it? Just talk us through how you've been building that because obviously, you've obviously understood the legal issue very well. Have you transitioned into becoming a tech entrepreneur?Mark Go:
Good question, Jim. Jim, I have other than a lawyer, I had another life.Jim James:
Tell us about it.Mark Go:
In Singapore, right, an 18 year old boy, you are forced into a conscript army. So I was conscripted. Not that I liked it. I was conscripted to be a military engineer. So I, and in that we go through two and a half years of training, as in engineering school, and then after that, is 40 days of reservists every year. So I only retired as a captain. In in mil in the military engineers are well caught a combat engineers age 50, 2 years ago. Yeah. So I have actually about 26 years. Yes, that's my alternate life, I have 26 years as an engineer.Jim James:
In the military, in the Singapore ministry.Mark Go:
So one of the things about, yeah, setting up our military. Yeah. In particular, with engineering, engineers have a certain way of thinking and organizing problems. So they look at problems in a modular sense. So when we build the bridges, we didn't build it from nuts and bolts, we actually build them from model modules. So we've got, we've got module stories like Lego. Right, you're putting things up in lego. So I, I was able to think of a contract. And I was able to, I think not many lawyers can do that. Because they're basically humanities students. But because of my training, as an engineer, I was able to dissect an agreement into different modules. And once you're able to see it, from engineering, the agreement from an engineering perspective, then you're able to communicate to the computer software programmers from an engineering language. And you could actually tell them what to do. But you cannot use legal language to explain that to them. You got to explain it to them say I wanted you do this in an engineering sense. And that's how I got my programmers to program and structure the program in a way I wanted it to be structured.Jim James:
And from a from a funding point of view, Mark, have you been, you know, paying for all of this out of your own pocket? Or did you decide to spin this off and make it into a venture funded or crowdfunded business?Mark Go:
Well, unfortunately, I had to bootstrap. This means that means I had to actually fund this on my own pocket in 2014. Because we were so early at that point in time, that the Singapore government didn't have a program or grants or system for law firms developing their own softwares. So we didn't fit into any of the known criteria at that point in time. Of course, after, after launching our software, we had a mention from our law minister, the Minister at that point, Indrani. Raja, and she was part of this future future economy of Singapore. You know, what he called study team. So they picked us up. So I raised this up with her and said that there is big problem. And that that was that was my biggest problem at that point in time. And from there onwards now, today, I believe there is actually a lot of funding for other law firms and other tech companies, you know, wanting to develop software like, like ours. So I do believe we are actually, we started, we started something so that the others could follow.Jim James:
And speaking of starting things, it looks as though when I look at your website on vanillalaw.com.sg have also started a community called =Go SME, do you want to share what what is that then mark?Mark Go:
Alright, so with Go SME, it's it's it's basically a we're trying to move on, it's a movement is a car movement, retelling, SMEs, that, you know, don't don't get stuck into thinking that business can only be done in your local community. Don't think small, you may be small, but you can start thinking big again, start thinking global. Now, let me explain to you that, why this is. So I mean, the internet has changed a lot of things. So when we talk about business, and we understand business in its five basic functions. In the old days, it was very difficult to this embody or break these functions up and put it all over the world. Simply because you have a command and control issue caseload for instance, right? If your HR function was in China, and if your finance function was in London, right? How how you How is London going to control the people who are working for you in China, it's almost impossible 100 years ago. So what you, big companies will do is that they will send an expatriate with his family house him pay his lodgings pay a big fair salary. And that's why it's terribly expensive to have offshore companies or offshoring kind of strategies, and is only the province of the larger lot larger companies. But now with the internet, with digital communication with what we call project management software, by it's actually very simple to control people and control these functions. They are in the world. Now, therefore, what's happened is this is that if you look at the five business functions, you can actually choose which country gives you the best option and you can maximize it. So take for instance, Richard Dyson, right. He's many people ask why. Now, if you understand the the meaning of HQ, HQ, HQ is in business parlance means tax and law. So he has moved the tax, or the finance function, and the legal function to Singapore. But the sales function, the r&d function ops function, and the people who are selling his products are still in the UK. So why is that? So? It's, it's quite obvious that the Singapore tax regime is much more favorable than the UK tax regime. Right? Singapore laws on commercial contracts and dispute resolutions are much better than those in Europe. So what companies are doing now is that they are going all over the world shopping for the best price, and the best options for their different functions. And I'm saying to SME, Go SME, you know, it's time you play the same game.Jim James:
Okay. See, theory technology is making it possible for the the SME to go global, without the kind of infrastructure that in the past was the preserve of SMEs of MNC's rather. That's right. And what does that mean for for you personally, Mark, does that mean that you are going to be based part of the time in Singapore, part of the time in the UK? Just share because there's an implication isn't there to have a sort of a global business what does that mean for you and your family?Mark Go:
The is done very well for my family because I actually don't need to be based anywhere now. On talking to you now I can be talking to you anywhere I can possibly be sitting in Singapore. But I happen to be sitting in Manchester. So this is this is how easy it is to do business. It is almost seamless, you know, if your physical presence actually, the number of times my physical presence is required only when I'm asked to attend court, or attend arbitration or attend mediation. Other than those times. basically, we can travel around now. What has it done for my family? The thing is that my son, well, he's 19 years old now. And, and he has given us an opportunity to expose him to the wider world, to be mobile, to be self to be independent, really. And also, now that we are here, his his his back home in Singapore is taking care of himself, he learned to cook is learned to basically do the laundry. So these things, I think, are also important skills that children ought to have.Jim James:
And it sounds as though with what you're creating with Vanilla Law Docs, you're creating independence for for owner operators or small businesses. Mark, it's wonderful. I've known you for a long time. And I've always cherished our friendship and always loved the knowledge that you've got, if they want to find out more about you. Where would they go to get in touch with Mark Go?Mark Go:
Well, we have a website. And it's Vanilla Law Docs. It's Sorry, it's vanillalaw.com.sg. And if you go to the website, you will see my profile. I think I have a video on this message. I've got blocks in there. So you can find a lot of resources in our website.Jim James:
It's been a pleasure to have you on the den today. Thank you so much for sharing. And in the show notes will also obviously include details about Mark Go and the Vanilla Law Docs. So that's all we've got for this show. Thank you for tuning in. And enjoy your week and go online and go global.Mark Go:
Thank you.Jim James:
Do subscribe, or leave a rating and for more information, please visit Silverfoxentrepreneurs.life and drop me an email. I'd love to hear from you. And maybe we can get you on the podcast and share what you know, or let me know what you'd like to know. Thank you once again, have a great day.